Fertilizing the Earth to Death: Thomas Hager on Nitrogen

Got an e-mail recently from a very interesting fellow who’s just written a book about the chemistry and ecology of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and if you haven’t had your fix of ecological chills recently, keep reading. The e-mail arrived in the midst of the Sock Wars, so I scrutinized it with more than ordinary vigilance, as if it might blow up in my face (revealing another face under a large hat, laughing madly), or as if the virus it harbored might bloom suddenly into sock-tossing flowers.

Having eventually decided (using a fool-proof method of one part deduction and eight parts pure guess-work) that the e-mail was legit, I followed the link provided and found myself reading a long and compelling passage about the unintended and dangerous consequences of nitrogen fixation, the basis for nitrogen fertilizers.

The fixation process, which takes nitrogen from the atmosphere (where it makes up 70% of the air we breathe) and incorporates it into compounds, has doubled the amount of nitrogen in and on the earth. When it’s applied to land as fertilizer, some of it is released as gas – and while some of that gas is the same harmless, inert N2 that we breathe all the time, some is now bonded with oxygen, forming the green-house gas nitrous oxide.

And then there are those algae blooms and dead zones in the sea, both of them caused, most scientists agree, largely by synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. When these fertilizers wash into streams or oceans, they cause a sudden growth-spurt in water-plants, which then use up all the available oxygen, starving out mollusks and other immobile organisms, and killing or driving off those that swim. I wrote a couple of posts about this back in May.

I knew already that manures could contribute alarmingly to algae blooms; but in a single parenthetical aside, Hager connected fertilizers to the damage done by manures: “(the manure rich in nitrogen from animals grown on feed made by crops fed with Haber-Bosch fertilizer).” Of course. The fertilizer ends up in the cattle feed, and so in the cattle that eat  and excrete it, and so in the manure itself.

This was getting more and more interesting. So I looked up the author of both book and e-mail, Thomas Hager. He’s written for several prestigious medical associations, including the National Cancer Institute and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and has written four books, co-written a fifth, and co-edited yet another. Three of these six books are on Linus Pauling, the scientist who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954, and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962, one on Aging Well, another of Pauling’s interests, and the most recent, The Demon Under the Microscope, about the discovery, development, and influence of sulfa drugs, precursors to penicillin and antibiotics.

But his next book, due out in September, goes in a different direction. Titled The Alchemy of Air, it’s about the Haber-Bosch process by which nitrogen can be taken from the air, where it’s plentiful but "useless"  (neither plants nor animals can take nitrogen from the air), and “fixed,” or captured in compounds that make it available to living plants and animals. This is the process that makes possible synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

With any luck, I’ll be reviewing the book here in a few weeks. If my ship comes in for real, I’ll interview Tom as well. I’m dying to know what turned his interest in this direction. Stay tuned—and in the meantime, check out the excerpt for yourselves.

If it’s scary, it’s not because the author is alarmist.

7 Responses to Fertilizing the Earth to Death: Thomas Hager on Nitrogen

  1. Thanks for this information. Michael Pollan also talks about this in his books and lectures. When we first heard him talking about it in a podcast lecture we downloaded, we were horrified.
    Indeed, the details of this are alarming by themselves without any over dramatization or alarmist raving. It’s just plain scary and people need to pay attention.
    Thanks again for sharing…

  2. Hey, Shibaguyz, good to see you here. I’m not surprised that Michael Pollan is onto this; I’m glad there’s more than one voice out there.
    –Keep the peace.

  3. Very interesting. I’ve read several pieces about this issue lately and it’s good to see it getting the attention it deserves. One hopes it will begin to penetrate the popular consciousness. I will definitely look for this book.

  4. Cool, but also very scary, but also also very cool.

  5. Dorothy–I’m always glad to find people who are aware and interested in getting even better informed. Down in Texas, you may be close to one of the biggest dead zones, in the Gulf of Mexico. Does that get much attention?
    Benjamin, you lost me. Maybe I’ve fallen victim once more to your famous irony, but–what’s the cool part? Sorry to be so dense.

  6. System that brings nitrogen from air to soil. That is cool methinks.

  7. fertilizers wash into streams or oceans, they cause a sudden growth-spurt in water-plants, which then use up all the available oxygen, starving out mollusks and other immobile organisms, and killing or driving off those that swim. Very interesting. Some ideas of organic fertilization are at http://www.graytehomesolutions.com

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