West, Texas

Written by Lydia Benedict.

When the fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded last week, my 13-year-old son looked at me puzzled, “Fertilizer exploding? That’s just not right.”

Around our family farm, fertilizer equals manure. We’ve used horse manure, chicken manure, and even guinea hen manure as fertilizer. And since my son regularly power-washes the chicken coop, he’s pretty familiar with our fertilizer. While he suits up for the job in old clothes including pants, long-sleeved shirt, hat and glasses, it’s not a hazmat suit and there is no risk of an explosion. 

Clancy power-washing the chicken coop 

But it’s not that simple when it comes to industrial agriculture. Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma explains the history of chemical fertilizer nicely. Let me summarize. Nitrogen is essential to life. Without it, there are no amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids. But as Pollan says, “The supply of usable nitrogen on earth is limited.” And to use nitrogen it first must be fixed. In layman’s terms, fixing nitrogen refers to “the process of taking atoms from the atmosphere and combining them into molecules useful to living things.” In nature, nitrogen is fixed in a cooperative effort between the sun, certain plants (i.e. legumes), and animals. On the roots of leguminous plants (such as peas, beans and peanuts) lives a bacterium that has the special ability to fix nitrogen. The other way nature fixes nitrogen is via lightning strikes, which can break nitrogen bonds in the air, releasing a light rain of nitrogen.

Before the use of chemical fertilizer, farmers carefully managed their farmland, rotating crops to include legumes. But that’s not all. Farm animals grazing on clover and alfalfa (also legumes) produced manure that was also nitrogen rich. Still, a farmer could only grow as much crops as the soils fertility would sustain.

Then in 1920, a German chemist discovered how to fix nitrogen. The result was ammonium nitrate. However, this discovery was not put to use growing crops, but rather furthering the German war effort: nitrates are an essential ingredient for explosives.

After World War II, there was a surplus of ammonium nitrate. That’s when the U.S. decided to spread the excess chemical on cropland and convert munitions plants into fertilizer plants. Ammonium nitrate quickly increased crop yield, especially hybrid corn—one of the biggest nitrogen-guzzling crops. With the advent of chemical fertilizers came the realization that the managerial role of the farmer rotating crops and utilizing livestock to fertilize land was forever changed. In short, the farm had become a factory.

More than a half-century later, we are still making ammonium nitrate to spread on our now nutrient-vacant cropland. Tragically, this chemical has also gotten into the hands of terrorists. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh used about 2.4 tons of ammonium nitrate (with diesel fuel) in the Oklahoma City bombing. Today, regulations exist that require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to have oversight of plants that make and store large quantities of this chemical. Yet DHS was unaware that West Fertilizer was storing what has been reported as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate—1350 times the level that requires federal oversight.

The industrial accident at West Fertilizer raises many questions regarding federal oversight of such volatile chemicals, the transparency of the companies making and storing these chemicals, and the vulnerability of surrounding homes, businesses and its residents. But I have other questions, starting with the efficacy of this chemical fertilizer. Besides industrial accidents and terrorist attacks, there are everyday costs associated with ammonium nitrate.

For one, there is the cost of making the chemical in the first place: the process requires—among other things—immense heat (supplied by electricity) and hydrogen gases (supplied by oil, coal, or natural gas). Considering the fossil fuel requirements of the fertilizer, it takes 50 gallons of oil to produce one acre of industrial corn.

Another cost is pollution. Farmers over-fertilize as insurance against crop loss, often applying nearly double the recommended amount of ammonium nitrate. Heavy rains and flooding (towns and farmland all along the Mississippi River are underwater right now) wash excess fertilizer into the waterways, ultimately dumping into the Gulf of Mexico creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey. Especially during spring when rainfall is the greatest, “blue-baby alerts” are common in the Midwest. These alerts warn that it is unsafe to drink tap water because the nitrates convert to nitrites and upon consumption can make it difficult for hemoglobin to carry adequate oxygen to the brain. Additionally, excess fertilizer also evaporates becoming nitrous oxide and acidifying the rain.

Still, experts tell us that without ammonium nitrates, there would not be enough food to feed the world. They claim that there would be 40% less people living on the earth simply because the earth would be incapable of fixing enough nitrogen to support current populations. Staggering!



But here’s the thing. If chemical fertilizer allows us to more abundantly grow crops, which in turn can sustain more of the world’s populations, then why is more than half of the ammonium nitrate created devoted to industrial corn? Keep in mind that industrial corn (a.k.a GM corn) is not edible for human beings unless it has been processed into corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Even if the jury is still out on whether HFCS is contributing to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, I think we can all agree that HFCS is certainly not nutritious.

While humans can digest industrial corn by eating corn-fed animals, resource-intensive meat products (a cow consumes eight pounds of grain for every pound of meat produced) would be a very inefficient way to feed the world. Estimating on the low size with a cow that produces 530 pounds of beef, the cow would consume 4,240 pounds of corn or about 71 bushels of corn. At that rate, an acre of corn feeds 2.25 cows. Meanwhile, nearly one billion people in the world are suffering from chronic hunger today and that number will only grow in the coming decades.