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Literary Gardener: The astonishing connection between fertilizers and population

“…[L]ast year’s harvest was a complete failure, and if we don’t do something soon, the country won’t be able to feed itself.”

— Rhys Bowen, “The Victory Garden,” 2019

In her historical novel “The Victory Garden,” New York Times bestselling author Rhys Bowen tells the story of Emily Bryce, the daughter of a prosperous British judge who volunteers for the Women’s Land Army during World War I. Against her parents’ protestations, Emily begins her service with the WLA as a “land girl,” harvesting potatoes and reaping hay for farmers whose workhands had all gone off to the war.

On her first day of training, Emily is told that her farm labor is an important contribution to the country. Indeed, England was confronting food shortages in 1918 due to crop failures and the loss of agricultural workers. The year before, Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare, which had further diminished England’s food supply by the sinking of British merchant ships carrying imports from overseas.

Bowen’s fictitious protagonist was one of 23,000 actual women who worked full-time in agriculture to help feed the nation during WWI. (The WLA also operated in America from 1917 to 1919.) In addition, civilians were asked to grow “victory gardens” to supplement food rations with fresh vegetables and fruit.

While England’s land girls dug potatoes to help feed local villagers, a German chemist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his contribution to Germany’s war effort. Haber had developed a way to turn atmospheric nitrogen (N2O) into ammonia that was needed to produce explosives. Although nitrogen comprises nearly 80% of air, it must react with hydrogen molecules under high pressure and high temperatures in order to be converted into a usable form of ammonia.

Haber’s artificial nitrogen fixation process was later sold to the German chemical company BASF, whose chemist and engineer Carl Bosch scaled up the conversion process for industrial and agricultural use. Bosch won the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his work on what is now called the Haber-Bosch process.

Today, the process is used to produce 100 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer every year. The U.S. is one of the largest producers and consumers of nitrogen fertilizers, along with China, India and Russia. Most fertilizer production facilities in the U.S. are located in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, near large reserves of natural gas, which is needed to produce hydrogen.

Access to huge amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer was a key factor in the rise of the “Green Revolution” in the 1960s, along with the development of selective plant breeding, herbicides and insecticides. In fact, scientists estimate that about half of the nitrogen in contemporary human tissue was produced artificially through the Haber-Bosch process to grow the plants we eat.

It is astonishing to realize that nitrogen fertilizer produced from the Haber-Bosch process is largely responsible for the explosive growth of the Earth’s human population — from 3 billion people in 1960 to 7.9 billion people in 2021. That means the population has more than doubled in my lifetime so far! (Global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.)

On the one hand, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers have been credited for increasing crop yields and reducing the amount of land needed to produce food. On the other hand, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are at least partially the reason that the world now has so many mouths to feed (as well as medical advancements and an overall rise in global wealth).

According to “Our World in Data,” it’s possible that the existence of every second person reading this column can be attributed to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

We’re all eyewitness to the impact of such phenomenal growth in global population. During nearly 20 months of the COVID-19 pandemic (so far), we’ve experienced firsthand the health risks associated with large numbers of people in close proximity. Also increasingly evident are the detrimental effects of human activity on environmental health and the ecosystems that sustain our way of life.

That is the astonishing connection between garden fertilizer and global population. Who would have guessed that the unassuming bag of nitrogen fertilizer at the garden center has brought about such far-reaching consequences? Certainly not “land girl” Emily Bryce, who spent the last months of WWI learning how to spread cow manure as a “method for improving the quality of the land.”

“Back to the land, we must all lend a hand,

To the farms and the fields we must go.

There's a job to be done,

Though we can't fire a gun,

We can still do our bit with the hoe.“

— from the “Official Land Army Song,” 1942

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.