BLOOD ON THE BAG: A SHORT AND VIOLENT HISTORY OF FERTILZERS – PART DEUX

October 30, 2011: In Part One, we looked at the violent history of organic fertilizers and how they gave rise to wars, imperialistic expansion and the grossest forms of labor exploitation. Of course there were many good things organic fertilizers did, but I’m not getting into that. This is only about the dark side. But the dark side of organic fertilizers pale in comparison with the dark side of inorganic fertilizers, like Darth Vader, Jr to Darth Vader, Sr.

INORGANIC FERTILIZERS are created by a variety of chemical processes. The most important of which is the Haber-Bosch process, named for Fritz Haber, the German scientist who invented it and Carl Bosch, the German engineer who produced it. Both won Nobel Prizes for their work in 1918.

In simple terms, the Haber process captures nitrogen from the air and converts it to chemical ammonia liquid that in turn can be converted to several different forms of nitrogen used in fertilizer. This discovery in 1908 has been called the greatest gift to humankind in modern times. It enabled huge quantities of ammonia to be produced for fertilizers. “Bread from the air” the process was called. It’s estimated that 2 out of 5 people on the planet today would not be alive, if not for the Haber process.

Frtiz HaberFrtiz HaberFritz Haber was a complex, interesting and tragic figure. He was a German Jew, who later converted to Christianity. He was an ardent patriot. When WWI started, he poured his energies into the war effort and what he came up with was - gas warfare. Fritz Haber developed the first poison gas to be used on the battlefield and supervised its first use. His wife, also a chemist, was so appalled at his chemical warfare work that she killed herself with Fritz’s military pistol. Haber was never remorseful and felt that poison gas would bring an end to the war quickly and therefore save lives. We’d see that logic again when the first A-bomb was dropped.

For all of Haber’s service to Germany, in the post-WWI Germany his place became increasingly tenuous. He was eventually hounded out of Germany by the Nazis in 1933 for being a Jew and died a year later in England. Ironically and tragically, the Nazis took his work and developed Zyklon-B, the gas used in the infamous gas chambers of the concentration camps.

Carl Bosch, the engineer who worked with Haber, didn’t fare much better. After the Haber-Bosch process was developed, he poured his energies into building factories to produce nitrogen fertilizer and later synthetic fuel. He helped found the German chemical giant IG Farben that was a critical part in Hitler’s war effort and the sole producer of Zyklon-B, the concentration camp gas.

Bosch, however was a critic of Hitler and, as Hitler rose to power, Bosch was steadily stripped of his responsibilities and power in the German chemical industry. He fell into alcoholism, became reclusive and eventually died in 1940.

The Haber-Bosch process gave us nitrogen from the air. It removed the limits to 19th century agriculture and revolutionized its productivity. But, as in any revolution, there are side effects and aftershocks. Nitrogen from the air has also brought us megatons of explosives, pollution from excess fertilizer use and perhaps a world population that has exceeded its carrying capacity and cannot exist without it any longer.
Haber-Bosch – a process that has had a greater impact on humankind than perhaps any other in contemporary human history was discovered and built by two men that hardly anyone knows of. There’s irony along with blood on the bag.

Next time you open that bag of organic or inorganic fertilizer remember its cost. But be not like Lady Macbeth and wring your hands crying out “Yet here’s a spot! Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Your garden needs it. Just be wise in its usage.

F & P