Artificial Fertilizers Emerge

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Artificial Fertilizers Emerge

As the demand for commercial fertilizers continued to grow, John Bennet Lawes was developing superphosphates – artificial, concentrated nutrients delivering both nitrates and phosphates, both of which are critical to plant growth.

In contrast to Liebig, Lawes considered himself a scientist (rather than a chemist) and was committed to improving and understanding farming as it actually occurred in nature, not in a laboratory.

His test plots and scientific experiments continue to this day at Rothamsted Research in England.

Though Lawes made a fortune selling his chemical fertilizers, he continued to believe manure was essential for farmers.

“The repeated declaration of chemists that farmers will be able to grow as fine crops by the aid of a few pounds of some chemical substances as by the same number of tons of farm-yard dung, is never likely to be realized,” Lawes stated in a leaflet published in 1846.

Lawes sold his business in 1872 but continued his agricultural experiments at Rothamsted.

And at the end of his life, long after he’d sold his business, he took a stand against manufactured fertilizer.

“I do not consider that artificial manures are very suitable for the growth of garden produce,” he wrote.

Even the inventor of artificial fertilizers recognized they were inferior to good old-fashioned manure.

But by then too many new businesses were making too much money selling artificial fertilizers to farmers.

And farmers were becoming increasingly desperate to find easy ways to increase their production – they were hooked on the fast results achieved with guano.

New miracle products for farmers were introduced and marketed aggressively.

Until the 1880s, the fertilizer industry was filled with fraud and inconsistent and ineffective products.

Most were still mainly made from natural and organic materials like fish scraps, mined phosphate deposits, and bones.

By the end of the century, fertilizer manufacturing had become an important source of revenue for the nation’s largest meatpacking companies.

Sodium nitrate, a by-product of salt mining (and also a powerful explosive), potash and sulfur, and waste from coal and oil processing were the main ingredients of the growing global fertilizer industry.

This happened at a time when there were few government regulations, no testing for health problems, and no consequences for selling toxic poisons.

As the Industrial Revolution continued, enormous quantities of waste chemicals accumulated.

Finally, after creating mountains and filling valleys with toxic waste, industrialists were forced by state and national regulators to get rid of it or face serious fines and disposal fees.

When the state and national regulators began imposing fines, most of the mining and manufacturing corporations turned to agriculture as the major dumping ground.

Rather than bear the expense of disposing of their own toxic garbage, these companies charged farmers to do it for them, and in the process they turned our agricultural lands into the primary dumping ground for industrial waste.

This is still happening today.

The EPA, in partnership with the American Coal Ash Association and the Electric Power Research Institute, has approved an effort to increase the use of coal ash in agriculture.

Already more than 180,000 tons of coal ash, which is loaded with mercury and arsenic, are used on agricultural fields every year.

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Dick and Lenay

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