Top | Sift

Fertilizer around the world

(article, Culinate staff)

The May issue of National Geographic features a report on fertilizer by Dan Charles. Boring, you say? Hardly. "If we don’t watch out, agriculture could destroy our planet," announces the story. "Here’s how to grow all the food we need with fewer chemicals."

The article, which travels to China and Africa as well as the American Midwest, is really a profile of nitrogen, an element that's essential for healthy crops. "Almost half of the nitrogen found in our bodies’ muscle and organ tissue started out in a fertilizer factory," notes Charles. "Yet this modern miracle exacts a price. Runaway nitrogen is suffocating wildlife in lakes and estuaries, contaminating groundwater, and even warming the globe’s climate."

What to do? One solution, Charles says, is careful management of farmland and livestock, rotating crops (especially nitrogen fixers) and animals (especially their crucial manure) so that the soil is regularly enriched but not overwhelmed with nitrogen. (If you've read Joel Salatin, you'll recognize this concept as a form of polyculture.) It's what Charles calls a middle ground: "excellent harvests with reduced nitrogen pollution."

Oh, and that fertilizer plant in Texas that exploded in April, killing 15 people? Yep: it produced nitrogen fertilizer.