Why Have we Been Using Nitrogen Fertilizers?

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nitrogen fertilizers
Nitrogen-Ammonia Fertilizer Plant | Saoirse2013

Fertilizer was once a breakthrough–but in the 21st century is it holding us back? Edgy Labs discusses the curious origins of Nitrogen fertilizers.

Here at Edgy Labs, we believe technology is neither inherently “good” or “bad.” In our eyes, the biggest merits of technology depend on utility.

That’s why this week we’re exploring the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber–considered both “father of chemical warfare” and most notable inventor of modern farming techniques.

What’s the Haber-Bosch process?

In the early 20th century, Fritz Haber developed the Haber–Bosch process in order to create ammonia from Nitrogen and Hydrogen gas.

This invention allowed large-scale synthesis of fertilizers and explosives to take place on an industrial level for the first time.

Today, the food production for half the world’s current population depends on this method of fertilizer production.

What’s the “problem” with Nitrogen Fertilizers?

“The main environmental problem associated with fertilizer use is contamination of water with nitrates and phosphates,” says Argo Services International.

Also, Apec Water specialists report that a good number of scientists believe that nitrates either lead to carcinogen production in the body–or they are carcinogens themselves.

The Haber-Bosch process revolutionized warfare and agriculture.Click To Tweet

Furthermore, we know that the presence of nitrates and phosphates in water leads to something called “eutrophication”. That’s when “a pond or lake slowly evolves into a marsh or swamp, then into a bog, and finally into a meadow” says Apec.

Alternatives to Nitrogen Fertilizers

As both fresh water scarcity and arable land scarcity loom as very real global crises in the next half century, we need to consider other options.

Genetically Modified (GM) Crops

GM Crops that make their own Nitrogen could be produced by “directly introducing relevant rhizobia genes” from plants that already use Nitrogen-fixing (peas, beans, lentils) into plants that do not (nearly all other food crops), says The Science Innovation Union.

However, a large number of farmers and health-conscious people alike have long distrusted GM crops–mostly because they worry about the safety or raising and eating GM plants.

This occurs despite the fact that, the WHO, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all deemed them safe.

Organic Agriculture

In response, there has been a rise in organic agriculture. Organic techniques like intercropping, crop rotation and mulching seek to replace valuable compounds (including Nitrogen) to the soil.

Unfortunately, as The Science Innovation Union reports, “these methods are time intensive . . . yield less and cost more.”

In fact, “organic farming, as it is practiced now in the U.S, is largely reliant on the very synthetic fertilizers and the confined animal feeding operations that it prohibits,” says agronomist Andrew McGuire of Washington State University.

Nitrogen Fixing

Azotic Technologies recently developed a process called “N-Fix”, that allows individual plant cells to regenerate nutrients by colonizing them with helpful nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

A few weeks ago, Dr. Thomas Reed began managing North American field trials in order to “assess and monitor the results” of this breakthrough technology.

Although not currently available on a commercial level, Azotic has concrete research and development plans for the future.

How do you feel about GMO foods? Do you have hope for Azotic’s new tech?

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