It’s Not All Black & White When It Comes to Fertilizer

I was not expecting the first paragraph of Bill Gates’ plan to save the world to focus on fertilizer. Or really the whole first page. Turns out he is a little obsessed with it:

I am a little obsessed with fertilizer. I mean I’m fascinated with its role, not with using it. I go to meetings where it’s a serious topic of conversation. I read books about its benefits and the problems with overusing it. It’s the kind of topic I have to remind myself not to talk about too much at cocktail parties, since most people don’t find it as interesting as I do.

He finds its fascinating as an invention that has had a positive impact on human life, likening it to the polio vaccine.

Let me reiterate this: A full 40 percent of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia.

I bristled a little when I read this. As a part-time farmer who lives in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I am biased towards hating synthetic fertilizer. Run off causes algae blooms that shade the sun and create huge problems for aquatic life.

But Gates does mention the problems of overuse and he seems like someone who would be interested in environmental concerns so I felt like I needed to do some follow up. What I found out was what I seem to continue to find out about most issues: there is no black and white answer when it comes to fertilizer. Certainly, in our country is it overused probably because it is cheap and readily available and we have decided that green lawns are an object of desire. But in developing countries with poor soil, according to Hunger Math, fertilizer can increase crop yields and that could mean the difference between life and death for those farmers who are raising the food to feed their families.

In other words, we shouldn’t deny artificial commercial fertilizer to the developing world merely out of a concern for the environment. Organic food production may result in healthier food and lower impact on the environment, but the needs of the hungry outweigh those values. First, feed the world.

They go on to suggest that the use of fertilizer might actually be “good” for the environment because by allowing each acre to produce more food, less land will need to be farmed:

The 150 million ha that would need to be fertilized, for one crop only per year, to end world hunger, is only about 10% of the total agricultural land. If we could obtain 2 fertilized crops per year from that land, we would only need to fertilize 5% of the agricultural land.

This all makes sense and feeding people should certainly be a priority. Of course, using fertilizer is only one of many potential solutions to be explored for alleviating world hunger, but if it can save lives, that IS more important than environmental impact. But, only to a point. Synthetic fertilizers do harm the environment. So, as with most of these kinds of sticky problems, we need to find the middle way. Using fertilizers where they can make a real difference but also being sure to help farmers learn sustainable techniques so that they can move in the direction of more earth-friendly agriculture.

Beyond learning something about world hunger, my little foray into fertilizer was a reminder of how much information we have available to us. When we wonder about something, we don’t have to live with that wonder until we can get to a book or talk to some expert. Instead, we can fact check Bill Gates on the spot. Gates doesn’t provide any footnotes so it’s up to us to figure out the truthiness of what he is writing. The exercise required close reading on my part, a focus of Common Core, and then the ability to frame my question, search for answers, and evaluate the sources providing those answers. Part of that evaluation was understanding that two of my sources–Hunger Math and Organic Valley–have their own biases that swing them to one side of the fertilizer question. The answer to “Is fertilizer good or bad?” is very similar to the answer to “Are charters schools good or bad?” or “Are interactive whiteboards good or bad?”: it depends.


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