A factory for the production of ammonia (NH3)
The Dr. Pooper Papers, Issue #2:
While it would be nice to think that in times before the industrial era that farming was a wholly benevolent practice, the truth of the matter is that similar to today, agriculture actually began with annual monocultures.
Nonetheless, there did emerge over the millennia various farming methods and practices of which were adapted to the unique and sometimes changing conditions of their particular places. Likewise, many different practices have been employed by many different cultures in order to maintain fertility of the land.
Those people of the Far East, as described by F.H. King in his (1911) book Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan, meticulously made efforts to return all organic materials back to the soil: food scraps, animal manures, straw, as well as night soil (human waste). As King put it,
when I asked my interpreter if it was not the custom of the city during the winter months to discharge its night soil into the sea, as a quicker and cheaper mode of disposal, his reply came quick and sharp, "No, that would be waste. We throw nothing away. It is worth too much money." In such public places as railway stations provision is made for saving, not for wasting, and even along the country roads screens invite the traveler to stop, primarily for profit to the owner, more than for personal convenience.
Similar-minded practices include growing certain crops with the specific intent of plowing them back into the ground to reinvigorate the land with organic materials, while others, to varying degrees, have drawn upon outside sources to supplement fertility.
The most enormous and ancient of these off-farm additions has been the annual flooding of the Nile River, carrying along with it nutrients emanating from far-off mountains and the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. These nutrients ended up adding to flood plains that farmers planted into as far away as Egypt, until, that is, the Aswan Dam came along and ruined that "free lunch."
Somewhat differently, many cultures have purposefully gone out of their way to collect various nearby materials to add to the fertility of the land. When WWOOFing in New Zealand 10 years ago I helped a friend collect huge wads of seaweed from the beach to be applied and added to the fertility of his garden (a practice partaken by those of the British Isles for centuries now), and I even WWOOFed with one couple who, believe it or not, claimed to collect roadkill to add to their compost piles.
But with a demographic shifting from rural areas to enlarging cities some 20 or so years ago due to various facets of the Industrial Revolution, a growing amount of mouths in cities needed to be fed by a shrinking amount of hands on the land. And with farming turning into more of a profit-seeking venture by absentee landlords than a way of life for those closer to the land, pressures were being put on the land for maximum extraction. In other words, the highest levels of efficiency were sought after, which has generally meant cutbacks on the costliest "input" – human labour.
Monumental changes were thus spurred to take place via the addition of industrial off-farm "inputs" – solidified bird excrement (guano) being the first – which enabled farming to transform away from the practice of nutrient recycling into that of nutrient importation, and which had the side-effect of making consumers out of farmers.
For it was over in South America that massive 10-50 metre deep deposits of guano existed on the Chincha islands off the coast of Peru, the result of a lack of rainfall which would have leached the nutrients out into the sea. As a result of the demands put upon the land by the new and unsavoury farming mentality, commercial shipments of this guano then began to be exported to the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries in the early 1840s, peaking at a rate of nearly 600,000 tonnes per year in the late 1860s.
Guano – aka, bird shit (photo: Steven Gough)
It is worthwhile to note however that while some farmers were eager to pay (and rather expensively) for this off-farm fertility, others, who had a responsible ethic leaning towards self-sufficiency, eschewed the guano and saw nothing wrong with the continued use of crop rotations as well as their labour intensive on-farm salvaging of manures from their own barns and pastures.
But regardless of those who made do without, what had been a resource used by Peruvians for thousands of years became plundered, exported, and exhausted in a mere six decades.
Furthermore, and with an uncanny resemblance to the atmosphere surrounding the present-day situation with oil, events quickly turned into a state of flux. As Vaclav Smil described it in his book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, there similarly existed
rising prices in an oligopolistic market, fears of resource exhaustion, attempts at price controls, the U.S. government getting involved in schemes of armed intervention, [and] American entrepreneurs… rushing to explore and exploit new deposits on tiny islands and reefs in the Caribbean and in the Pacific.
As the guano supplies inevitably began to dwindle, various other minor sources of industrial-scale fertilizer began to be utilized. However, all of these couldn’t come near to meeting the growing demand that agriculture was increasingly becoming reliant on due to the new land practices, and incessantly growing urban populations.
It was in 1909 then that the German scientist Fritz Haber appreciably pulled off what William Crookes had been calling for a decade earlier (mentioned in my previous post), essentially the creation of fertility in the laboratory. With the process later adapted to a larger scale via the assistance of the BASF chemist Carl Bosch, what had been devised was a process whereby atmospheric nitrogen was combined with hydrogen derived from fossil fuels to create ammonia (NH3), roughly 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas (today’s predominant feedstock) currently required to create one ton of fertilizer.
To this day the ammonia provided by the Haber-Bosch method accounts for 99 percent of all synthetic nitrogen fertilizers added to our soils every year – some 150 million tons, equal to that of all naturally derived sources – which means that roughly 40 percent of humanity (about 3 billion people) owe their continued survival to the process (and which is why some call it the most important invention of the twentieth century). Along with mined phosphorous and potassium, these products make up the bags of petrochemical NPK fertilizer that one sees on store shelves with the three digit combinations (10-1-5 for instance) and which end up on our suburban lawns and golf courses, and in a greater scale, on our crop fields under the guise of "plant food."
However, just as there are limits to growth, limits to oil extraction levels, and so forth, there are limits to petrochemical fertilizers. A time will come when, much as occurred with guano, supplies will reach their peaks and other means of fertilizing the land will be required. There is, however, no next bonanza of easily sourced fertilizer supplements to tap into.
In other words, if the land is to be expected to bear food, then ecological means of maintaining its fertility will be required. This includes, but is not restricted to, crop rotations, the application of composted food scraps, and, very un-21st century-like, the application of livestock manures and human wastes to the land.
Since animals in the industrial agricultural system are raised on CAFOs (concentrated animal feedlot operations), this means that their manures are too concentrated in individual locations to have any economically viable chance of being spread across the land far and wide. This implies that small mixed farms will have to become the norm, where manures will generally only need to fall a few feet before they reach their required end-point.
As if that weren’t daunting enough of a transition, the return of nutrients to the land via human wastes is a whole other issue. With the current corralling of people into ever more crowded and packed urban centres, it might be said that our modern cities are the human equivalent of CAFOs. Nonetheless, it would be nice if the question was simply: How do we get all those human wastes to the land? But that’s far from the case, particularly when it’s not only hard enough to broach the topic of industrial collapse amongst polite company, but when talk of human feces is generally taboo.
Whatever then can we do?
Well, I hate to say it, but could it be that the dark arts of advertising may come to our rescue? Back in 1928, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, published his controversial book Propaganda, his treatise on "the scientific technique of shaping and manipulating public opinion." In it, Bernays recounted that
in the manufacture of American silk, markets are developed by going to Paris for inspiration. Paris can give American silk a stamp of authority which will aid it to achieve definite position in the United States.
Did it work? You betcha!
The result of this… was that prominent department stores in New York, Chicago, and other cities… tried to mold the public taste in conformity with the idea which had the approval of Paris. The silks… gained a place in public esteem.
One can’t help then but wonder – could Paris do for American shit what it did for American silk?
Vive la (One-Straw) Révolution!
Regardless of the chances of that happening, we need to begin to realize the importance of returning human wastes to the land. And for that to happen, a reimagining of the saying "money makes the world go round" might be a good place to start.
As explained in a previous post of mine, money is a proxy for energy. Therefore, it might be closer to the truth to say then that it is actually energy that makes the world go round.
However, as we are not simply energetic beings but rather corporal beings of a biological nature, it can perhaps be said then that not even energy makes the world go round. For us humans who require sustenance – not simply energy – to feed ourselves, to grow, etc.; and since the maintenance of the land – and thus manure – is required to allow for the conditions for that possibility, it might be more useful if we got down to the nitty gritty of it all and called a spade a spade. And by that I mean one thing and one thing only:
Shit makes the world go round.