Chemical Fertilizers are the Bomb

a bomb exploding

I’m a history buff, so I think it’s worth noting that the 100th anniversary of today’s chemical fertilizers occurred a couple of weeks ago.

It’s an event called World War I.

As Europe slid into war in 1914, chemists in the battling countries scrambled to find ways to destroy advancing armies. Two German chemists discovered that ammonia could be used to create explosives. Big explosives. Those bombs were very effective. But observers noted something else: The soldiers died, but the vegetation turned really, really, really green.

As The War to End All Wars came to an end, the wheels were set in motion to turn these explosive compounds into a commercial fertilizer.

Today, driving through farm country, it’s common to see large tractors pulling long tanks of anhydrous ammonia (anhydrous means without water) across their fields. Each year, a handful of farmers across the United States lose their lives because a hose ruptures from the tank pumping ammonia into the soil in which they were fertilizing their crops. Texas A&M University Extension Service calls anhydrous ammonia “one of the most harmful and hazardous chemicals used in agriculture,” saying, “Ammonia has many hazardous effects as it is highly reactive, explosive, and toxic.”  In fact, that is what Timothy McVeigh used as the key ingredient to detonate a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

Anhydrous ammonia delivers pure nitrogen to the roots of the crops growing across the expanses of our agricultural landscape. It’s still turning the vegetation really, really, really green.

But what about rest of the equation?

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