Chemical fertilizers: boom, risks and damages

  •   May 12th, 2015
  •   Category: News
  •   Posted by: Ecodyger
albero morto per fertilizzanti chimici

The ” advent of chemistry ” in agriculture has certainly left an indelible sign of change. In our brief journey into the world of chemical fertilization we will try to provide answers to the following questions that arise spontaneously.

What effects may have had chemical fertilizer on agriculture? What advantages have ensued and, above all, what damage they have determined? The fundamental question in all these cases is: at what price ?

In our previous article we introduced the interesting topic of fertilizers and manures (article link) with a precise historical nod to the years immediately following the end of the War world.
In this period the European continent witnessed a definitive approach for the fate of agriculture in the industry, particularly chemistry. The same process was already in place in the Twenties in the United States.

Twenties US fertilizers

The traditional agriculture, considered until then a structure remarkably stable, at least from an ecological point of view, was replaced by a new agriculture, increasingly dependent, both from the economic and social point of view, by factors that before were external to it.
Agriculture was simply integrated in the economic and industrial system that was forming in the early postwar years.

The growth of agricultural production based on the massive use of artificial fertilization, however, brought with it a very significant negative consequences on the land and beyond.

A boom of 500%

The consumption of chemical fertilizers has never been so high as in recent decades. Just think that in the last 50 years their production and use have quintupled. According to the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, from 2005 to 2012 the world has gone from an average annual use of 120 kg/hectare to 140 kg/hectare.

Just think China alone consumes 344 kg/hectare in a year, followed by Brazil and Japan. In contrast, there are countries where consumption remains very low. Ghana, for example, consumes 7.5 kg/hectare/year. Similarly many other African countries, so that lends themselves to interesting lands of conquest for the fertilizer industry.

map fertilizers world

 What are fertilizers made of ?

Let us pause a moment with our reflection and briefly try to understand what these chemical fertilizers are made of, keeping in mind also what has been written in our previous article.

The chemical fertilizers, also known as mineral fertilizers, are obtained by extraction or by physical and/or chemical industrial processes. Both are classified based on the type of nutrient and the nutrient content.

By type of nutrient:

  • The primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (essential for the growth of plants and used by them in large quantities).
  • Secondary nutrients: calcium, magnesium, sodium and sulfur (important for the life of plants and used by them in moderate amounts).
  • Micro elements: boron, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, zinc (essential for the life of plants and used by these in small amounts).

By nutrient content:

  • Simple fertilizer: it contains only one primary nutrient (nitrogen fertilizer , phosphate or potash)
  • Compound fertilizer: contains at least two primary nutrients; obtained chemically or by blending)

The title of a fertilizer is the nutrient content, expressed in% by mass.

Did you know..

About 74% of the fertilizers used are composed of nitrogenous fertilizers , but in some cases this percentage rises to 90% . Nitrogen fertilizer is the most widely used of all.

We report as knowledge a list of the principal nitrogen fertilizers:

  • Ammonium sulphate
  • Ammonium chloride
  • Ammonium nitrate
  • Calcium nitrate
  • Sodium nitrate
  • Urea
  • Calcium cyanamide

Almost all of these chemical fertilizers have as “precursor” ammonia, which is synthesized through the aeration of nitrogen gas with hydrogen in systems working at high temperatures, around 500 ° C, and at an extremely high pressure of about 300 atm.

For some productions it can also be used relatively “impure” ammonia, obtained as a byproduct in the gases emitted in the processing of iron and steel also known as coke oven gas.

factory ammonia fertilizers

We believe that everything has already led to think how impacting and polluting this type of activity is, but there is more.

The whole world is underestimating this powerful chemical agent , a single nitrogen atom with three hydrogen atoms attached. Ammonia is a chemical precursor of the modern nitrogen fertilizers, which as mentioned are used everywhere in the modern agricultural systems worldwide . By injecting nitrogen into the soil , agronomists have increased yields per hectare to a huge amount.

We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, German scientists who in the not too distant 1909 synthesized ammonia.

haber bosch scientists ammonia

It is estimated that 40 % of today’s intake of vegetable protein is a condition created by the Haber – Bosch discovery (source Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba).

87 million tons of nitrogenous fertilizer

fertilizzanti chimici energia

Impressive numbers of annual production of these fertilizers according to the IFA – International Fertilizer Industry Association. These numbers could be the perfect opportunity to explore new technologies of fertilizers that could reduce their environmental impact and energy consumption, considering a complete and total food safety.
We’ll talk about it after completing the necessary reflections on the impact of all production of chemical fertilizers.

A world of energy to produce fertilizers wholesale …

factory energy ammonia

The production of chemical fertilizer costs a lot of energy. For example , the production of one ton of ammonium requires the energy equivalent of a ton of natural gas. To this, we must add the major impact in terms of CO2 emissions required for the extraction of minerals needed for the production, packing fertilizer products, their transportation and distribution from the few production centers to all the continents of the world where it is used.
It is and it is recognized by all as one of the production activities/distribution with the greatest impact on the environment.

What’s the use of chemical fertilizers ?

World agriculture will never do without chemical fertilizers. Why?
Because of a growing population and the need for an ever greater production.The chemical fertilization, however, should not replace the organic fertilization, but complement it. Not only to control costs and energy investment, not only to mitigate environmental impacts, but also as a matter of smart economy. Chemical fertilizers as fossil fuels are limited resources from which most of today’s agriculture is heavily dependent.

The damages

Over the last fifty years, the agricultural production has continued to grow , playing on all possible factors, see what is written above. The results were certainly impressive, but so were the harmful effects on the environment.

Natural resources to produce fertilizers are running out, as:

  • The resources of potassium (which is extracted from particular rocks) are gradually and inexorably running out
  • Similarly, the phosphorus is a good example of the extent of this dependence : 80% of what was extracted in the world is used for the production of fertilizer. The efficiency of use by plants or animals, however, is less than 20%. The rest is washed out (action of water) or end up in the wastewater (sewage) or remains in the soil.

Direct effects in the sight of all:

The pollution of groundwater with nitrates and herbicides, growth hormones for cattle, the scandal of mad cow disease and dioxin chickens are the most prominent examples.

Indirect effects:

The abandon of hilly areas and mountain by farmers, the concentration of production in a few areas and the resulting increase in energy costs for transport.

All problems these that should be answered as fully as possible, in an attempt to recover the territory and to stimulate the knowledge of its significant and influential history, perhaps no longer to be separated from that of the men who lived there and those who are living there.

In addition to well-known environmental problems related to water eutrophication (a process that enriches nutrient habitat, in this case favors the proliferation of algae, with loss of oxygen and resulting in damage to the marine environment), or pollution of groundwater .

eutrophication water algae

It’s interesting how the phosphate rocks cost, which the fertilizer is extracted from, is grown from 50 to 400 $/ton between 2007 and 2008.

These costs, which phosphorus shares with other chemical fertilizers, have a significant impact on the economic balance of the agriculture and fall across the entire food supply chain. There is then the spectrum of a rationalization of extractions and thus of a decrease in availability due to the growing demand for fertilizers.
But phosphorus is necessary: plant growth and crop yields depend on the availability of this mineral, in the right quantity and at the appropriate time.

soil deplation fertilizers

 Solutions and reflections

It is also necessary in this field to apply the principles of the recovery and recycling in other sectors that are becoming essential, see the alternative energy sources. And among sources from which to extract minerals for fertilizers there are several options: sewage, livestock waste, industrial waste.

Establish a policy of recovery for fertilization is not something that will happen overnight. Not only because it changes completely what we have done until not, but because it is also to upset a market that is now worth $ 192 billion and it will be worth 230 in 2017. It is well known, the economic reasons are always very strong.

Despite everything, even the fertilizer field will have to cope with the changing climate and dwindling resources and face differently the resources management.
And before it begins , the better for all of us and especially for our children. If it will be able to develop technologies for recovery and recycling of fertilizers, not only of production, then it will continue to be an important support for agriculture in this millennium .

We must come ( we hope ) to the necessary search for new sustainable fertilizer.

fertilizers banner research

100 years after ammonia synthesis it is time to create new fertilizers for effective and efficient sustainable agriculture; maybe regenerating/transforming everything that nature creates and does not destroy.

A little satisfaction …

In our small way, we at Ecodyger have designed and developed a revolutionary appliance that enables to regenerate all the kitchen scraps in a real natural resource to be used as 100%  natural fertilizer and soil conditioner, ZERO KM.


All while avoiding wasting resources that otherwise would become organic waste collected, transported and transferred according to the traditional chain of waste management.