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One man’s fertilizer is another man’s bomb or illegal drug


Suppose I were to tell you that our most widely used nitrogen fertilizer is an extremely dangerous chemical that in its manufacture, transport, and application has killed and injured thousands of people.

What if I were then to tell you that this same hazardous material, pressurized in big “nurse tanks” is being towed routinely over public roads, usually by pickup trucks, from fertilizer dealerships to farms, over highways and village streets, past residential districts, school playgrounds, and workplaces, without police or any other escort with flashing warning lights.

Suppose I were to tell you that this very same hazardous material is now being routinely stolen by drug dealers and drug addicts to make methamphetamine (meth). By now quite a few of you are eyeing me a little uneasily. I must be a real paranoid kook, right?

Then suppose I told you that the next two most widely used nitrogen fertilizers on farms are also materials of choice to make deadly bombs and that fertilizer dealers, farmers and government officials are all scared stiff about terrorists trying to steal the stuff.

Now you really do think I am some kind of doomsday maniac.

Nope. All of the above is common knowledge in agricultural circles. Anhydrous ammonia is the preferred choice of both farmers and meth makers, but I have a hunch that most of the people reading this have never seen one of the white nurse tanks in which the stuff is towed from fertilizer dealerships to farm fields. I have a hunch that many of those who have seen a nurse tank don’t really know what they were looking at.

It is a credit to safety precautions on the part of farmers and fertilizer dealers that there aren’t more accidents, but enough have occurred to give anhydrous ammonia the most hazardous rating by far of all chemicals in agricultural use. Ammonium nitrate and urea, the next two most widely used fertilizers are much safer to handle but can also be used to make deadly bombs like the one that blew up a big chunk of Oklahoma City a few years ago.

What makes this so ironical is a new study out of the University of Illinois which gives convincing evidence — once again — that farmers are overusing nitrogen fertilizer in farming, and that far from contributing to the sequestration of carbon in soils as the mythmakers want us to believe, nitrogen used in excess is literally burning the carbon out of the soil. The study: The Myth of Nitrogen Fertilization For Soil Carbon Sequestration, but Alan Guebert’s eFarm and Food File ( for Nov. 9, ‘07), sums it up more than adequately. Guebert quotes one of the authors of the study, Richard Mulvaney: “Under modern high yield cropping systems, we are literally burning up our soils through the over-application of nitrogen.” My grandfather told me the same thing fifty years ago, back before farmers went crazy trying to fertilize their way to profitable yields.

An amusing (well, pathetic is a more appropriate word) fallout from the myth about nitrogen fertilization is that farmers can now sell “carbon credits” to heavy carbon emitters as a way for the emitters to appear “green” (see one of my earlier posts about this stupidity). So-called no-tillage farming (another myth) is supposed to sequestrate carbon in the soil, even though anhydrous ammonia is the fertilizer of choice in “no-till.” Says Mulvaney, as quoted by Guebert, this scheme is akin to “fraud because the way we farm burns, not banks, carbon.”

The pity is that even following the most chemically-focused farm fertilizer recommendations, a farmer can cut his nitrogen use by half or two thirds, if he rotates alfalfa or clover with his grain crops. Legumes pull significant amounts of nitrogen out of the air and into the soil, all for free.

Imagine now that parade of big white “nurse tanks” of anhydrous ammonia rolling down village streets and country roads, looking for a place to cause a grave accident, and listen to Mulvaney’s words from the column quoted above: “I now view those giant anhydrous ammonia tanks… as giant soil burners, and the farmers driving them as unguided missiles.”

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Current Books:
All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises of Pasture Farming
The Lords of Folly (novel)
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)

Editorial Notes: Many problems are associated with the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer. In addition to those mentioned by Gene Logsdon, there is groundwater contamination and eutrophication (excessive plant growth and decay in an ecosystem). Making nitrogen fertilizer takes a tremendous amount of energy and natural gas. The latest Wikipedia article on the Haber Process says:
The Haber process now produces 100 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year, mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea. 0.75% of the world's annual energy supply is consumed in the Haber process (3.35% of world natural gas production is used for ammonia production, and natural gas represents 22% of world energy production. See also ["Science Magazine"] for rough estimate of 1% of energy production.
Generating the energy for nitrogen production causes greenhouse gas emissions. Recent stories on nitrogen -BA

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