Yet more land goes back to nature

Cutting from May 2027

Yet more land goes back to nature: 

Thanks to the ammonium nitrate fertiliser from self-sustaining NitroFix units, more than 100 million hectares of farmland have now been returned to the wild. That was the message delivered by the secretary-general of the UN, Lucy Wang Hui, as she switched on the world’s millionth NitroFix unit in Kenya and announced that it meant another 100 hectares of farmed land was no longer needed for food production. 

In 2010, the UN decreed that low-yield organic farming (as promoted by the Soil Association) was harming the Earth’s ecology by growing food which was then transported thousands of miles to supermarkets. Such farming has produced ever-lower yields, as the nitrogen content of the soil cannot be fully replaced by local sources of animal manure and compost. ’What was sustainable agriculture when the food was eaten locally became unsustainable when the produce was exported,’ said Wang Hui. ’Farmers originally benefited from the higher prices that people in the West paid for their organic produce, but as crop yields fell it became clear that this type of farming was unsustainable globally.’  

The anti-organic movement, which originated in the UK, was spearheaded by food chemists who mounted an education campaign to explain plants’ nutrition needs, and especially the importance of nitrogen. ’No one talks of artificial fertiliser anymore because this is now saving the planet,’ said William Patel, the UK’s representative at the event, and president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. NitroFix units now supply 10 per cent of the nitrogen fertiliser the world’s plants need, and with no adverse environmental impact. The UN aims to raise this to 50 per cent in the next ten years. It could end the practice of fertilising farmland with human sewage, cutting the excessive use of water that is required to wash crops from such farms, in order to make them free from disease pathogens. Sewage is now only used to fertilise woodland, energy crops, or for methane generation. 

Our science correspondent writes:

As far as plant roots are concerned there is no difference between the nitrate and ammonia which comes from rotting waste and that which comes from the NitroFix units, which are now seen on farms around the world. They use electricity to generate nitric acid from nitric oxide, which is produced by combining oxygen and nitrogen of the air via the Birkeland Eyde process developed in the early 1900s. The nitric acid is then reacted with ammonia, generated from nitrogen and hydrogen, the latter being produced by electrolysis of water. Both processes use catalysts developed around 10 years ago. 

The result is a solution of ammonium nitrate suitable for spraying as fertiliser. The electricity to drive NitroFix units is generated on site by windmill, watermill, or solar power, and even a small unit will produce several tonnes of ammonium nitrate per year. ’It’s a win-win situation for agriculture and the world’s ecology,’ says William Patel whose UK-based company provides the catalysts for the processes. 

The chemical reactions behind NitroFix are now taught at junior schools and almost every child knows the poem that explains them. 

John Emsley