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High Irony: Afghan War Seen as Boon to Organics

The Oklahoma City National Memorial

The Oklahoma City National Memorial

The calls and emails, at first, were no more than a trickle. First Greece. And a few days later Hungary. Soon, contacts from several nations all across Eastern Europe had made their way to SafeLawns.org all asking for the same recommendation: “What can we use to replace our ammonium nitrate fertilizer?”

This phenomenon began near the end of January, but the reason for all the inquiries didn’t become clear to me until this week. Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, had announced a ban on fertilizers containing ammonium nitrate on Jan. 22 because the terrorists in his country were using the fertilizers to make homemade bombs.

For anyone perplexed or laughing, the fertilizer-as-a-bomb story is all too familiar in the United States. In 1970, student protesters at the University of Wisconsin–Madison set off a much publicized car bomb with ammonium nitrate as the fuel. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh packed his van with fertilizer before detonating the vehicle in Oklahoma City. I have visited the memorial park on the site where the federal building once stood and I can tell you that, to this day, it’s a chilling scene.

That terrorists would use fertilizer as a bomb doesn’t inherently make fertilizer bad, anymore than assassinations prove that guns are dangerous. The terrorist and the assassin are the guilty parties. But the mere fact that certain synthetic fertilizers can be used as bombs does serve to illustrate fertilizers’ vast potential for environmental degradation.

A MOST DESTRUCTIVE PROCESS

When I speak in public, I occasionally mention the Haber-Bosch patent as perhaps the most destructive invention known to mankind. That may be hyperbole, but it’s difficult to imagine a more devastating tool, with the possible exception of the nuclear bomb itself — and even that has only been detonated a few times.

The process, in lay terms, combines hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen under high pressure and high temperature to create ammonia (ammonium nitrate), which was initially conceived in 1909 as a boon to agriculture. More nitrogen, at first blush, would grow bigger and better plants and no one anticipated any problem. Right away, though, the world’s war machine seized upon the ammonium nitrate as a ideal fuel for bombs, because it’s so highly explosive. When World War I arrived, munitions factories were constructed world-wide to build bombs and, by World War II ammonium nitrate was a vast industry. Farmers in the U.S. couldn’t even buy it for fertilizer, though, because the military grabbed every drop.

After The War, all those otherwise useless factories needed to justify their existence . . . hence the refocus on production of ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer. In the “better living through chemistry” generations, farmers and gardeners believed that the bigger the N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) numbers, the better. Today, an estimated 5 billion pounds of ammonium nitrate is used as legal explosive in the United States. Far, far more is used for fertilizers for fields and, yes, lawns. On the upside, synthetic nitrogen is said to account for feeding at least a third of the world’s population. But what about that downside?

THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

To many scientists the world over, the most destructive legacy of Haber-Bosch has been the fertilizers. Due to over-reliance on synthetic fertilizers, much of our agricultural soil has been ruined, or lost altogether. Algae blooms in the oceans are rampant, drinking water supplies are imperiled and the rate of air pollution and global warming has been vastly escalated. An organization known as the International Nitrogen Initiative suggests that excess nitrogen may be the single biggest environmental problem in the world today:

“As nitrogen moves along its biogeochemical pathway, the same atom can contribute to many
different negative impacts in sequence: as NOx (nitrous oxide) it can increase ozone concentration in the atmosphere, decrease atmospheric visibility, and increase acidity of precipitation; following deposition it can increase soil acidity, decrease biodiversity, lead to coastal eutrophication, and then emitted back to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide it can increase greenhouse warming, and decrease stratospheric ozone.”

In lay terms, you need to know that every time you buy Miracle Gro, or Turf Builder, or Peters or any other synthetic fertilizer of choice, you are contributing to this environmental degradation. We simply have too much nitrogen in the atmosphere and we need to stop it, and now.

THE SOLUTION

Having a war-torn country ban synthetic fertilizer, ironically, can be one of the biggest boons in history for the organic fertilizer and lawn care movement.

“We’re getting calls from everywhere now,” said one of my colleagues who manufactures a natural soil amendment. “Karzai’s ban has really, really set things in motion over there and they’re looking to the United States to provide the solution.”

Whether or not organic agriculture can feed the world is open to debate. I have friends like Eliot Coleman who insist that it could, yet others aren’t so sure.

The one thing we know with certainty, though, is that organic management can keep your landscape lush and beautiful. You just don’t need the chemicals. Period.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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