BLOOD ON THE BAG: A SHORT AND VIOLENT HISTORY OF FERTILIZER – PART I

September 29, 2011:This is not a treatise on organic vs inorganic fertilizers. It is instead a short synopsis of the violent past of commercial fertilizers. I bet you never considered or even knew, when you opened that bag of 10-10-10 or guano fertilizer, that it had a dark past.

What is the difference between organic and inorganic fertilizers? Organic fertilizers are derived from once living matter, ie: compost, animal and bird manure. Sometimes non-organic rock sources of nutrients, such as rock phosphate which is mined, is included under organic. Inorganic fertilizers are derived through chemical processes, most notably the Haber process. (We’ll get into the guy for whom that was named in part deux).

Now there are advantages and disadvantages in the use of both groups of fertilizers, but I’m not going to get into that. When it comes to plant nutrient needs, the nutrient in the greatest demand is nitrogen. Nitrogen is responsible for green growth and many other things. When we fertilize in the vegetable garden or on the farm, it’s usually to supply nitrogen. As far as the plant is concerned, it doesn’t matter or distinguish between nitrogen from organic sources or nitrogen from a chemical plant. An ion is an ion. The differences between them as far as how they interact with the soil and soil biota are there however. . . but I’m not getting into that either. Both have blood on their bags.

ORGANIC FERTILIZERS, until the early part of the 20th century, were the only form of fertilizers available. For local small scale agriculture there was and is local waste resources available, but it has always been limited and expensive to move around. For the world’s population to grow it needed larger, cheaper and more reliable forms of organic fertilizers and that came from essentially two sources – the nitrate mines of northern Chile and seabird guano (droppings) from numerous rock nesting islands off Peru, Mexico and the West Indies. Harvesting these sources caused wars, imperialistic expansion, legalized slavery – in short, a lot of shit, including the word “shit”.

Etymological legend has it that “shit” came from the lucrative guano trade. Guano had to be shipped dry for weight and safety purposes. If the guano was shipped in the lower holds of their transports where leaky hulls might bring them in contact with water, they would generate ammonia, which is highly explosive. An errant ship’s lantern could blow the whole ship to smithereens. To avoid this, guano was labeled “S.H.I.T” for Ship High In Transit. (That’s the legend, however, I gather it’s not the truth. Origins of the word go much farther back than the 1800’s, but that makes for a shittier anecdote.)

What is fascinating is that bird droppings were the beginning of the United States overseas expansion. In 1856 Congress enacted the Guano Islands Act, a law which is still in effect today. What it says is that any American citizen can lay claim to any island in the world if:
1) It’s uninhabited at the time of discovery
2) Has guano deposits
3) Is not in the jurisdiction of another country.
And once you have claim of the island, the United States is obligated to protect that island by force, if necessary. Over 100 islands were claimed by the US through the Guano Act in the Pacific and Caribbean, including Midway Island, the site of the famous WWII naval battle. Until the Guano Act, America’s expansion was limited to the Pacific Coast. One might say that guano built our country into the world power it is today . . . or one might not say that, either

These guano islands however were no dream retreat. They were mining operations and some of them were labor hellholes of the most horrific kind. The most notable was Navassa Island in the Caribbean. The island was mined by African American laborers after the Civil War. They were indentured for a period of 1 ½ years but it was more like being slaves. They were beaten, tortured and killed by the scores. As was the pattern in mining communities in the US, at the end of their work period they owed more to company store than they had made and they had to stay on. In 1889, they had had enough and a bloody worker revolt took place where 15 people, mostly white supervisors and family were killed and dismembered. The US Navy eventually came in and removed everyone, except a small boy hiding in the bushes, and took them back to the US where the rebels were tried and one was hung.

The great deposits of guano are gone along with the vast fortunes made by the guano trade. Many of the guano islands are now wildlife refuges, a good thing. You can still buy guano fertilizer. Some of it is seabird guano, but an increasing amount is bat guano.It's not cheap about $3.50 - $4.50 a pound.

I must say, in all fairness, that the blood of exploitation is not solely due to the need for fertilizers, but is shared by the need for bullets. Potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate that is found in guano and the Chilean nitrate mines is used in the manufacture of gunpowder and explosives. We have used it to produce both food and feuds.

In part deux, we’ll look at inorganic fertilizers. The discovery of how to get nitrogen from the air is hailed by many as the most influential discovery of modern times. It has been both the boon and the bane of humankind and the scientist who discovered it (probably the most unknown “famous” person in history) had a life worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy or Wagnerian opera. Stay tuned, the bag gets bloodier.

F & P