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Capitalism ‘solves’ the Nitrogen Crisis: A brief history

Originally published: Climate and Capitalism (September 30, 2019)   | 

Part Three of Ian Angus’s examination of the disruption of the global nitrogen cycle by an economic system that values profits more than life itself.

Part One and Part Two discussed how the global nitrogen cycle works, and the environmental damage caused by a massive increase of reactive nitrogen in the soil, air and water in the 20th century. We now turn to capitalism’s attempts to solve the metabolic rift in 19th century agriculture by plundering the global south.

Guano poster

For thousands of years, peasant communities around the world fed themselves by working with nature’s nutrient cycles. Through trial and error and careful observation they learned ways to maintain soil fertility.

Techniques such as spreading animal manure and burning crop residues in the fields were widely used, but they could only slow nitrogen depletion, not reverse it. The only way to do that was to plant natural nitrogen-fixers such as beans and peas, either in rotation with cereals or by intercropping — and in fact, archeological evidence shows that peas and lentils were grown together with wheat and barley in the Middle East 8,000 years ago. The same method, using other legumes, was discovered and implemented independently on four continents.1 In what is now Mexico and Guatemala, multi-cropped fields maintained by Mayan farmers have been continuously productive for thousands of years.2

Of course traditional agricultural knowledge varied a great deal, and unintentional soil destruction did occur, sometimes on a large scale. Nevertheless, effective methods of maintaining soil fertility have been known and practiced for millennia.

For several centuries, however, traditional methods of farming have been undermined by capitalist agriculture, whose primary concern is capital accumulation. The need to make a profit every year militated against spending time and money on long-term fertility. As dust bowl historian Hannah Holleman explains, producing for distant markets radically changed agriculture’s dynamics.

“Cash-crop agriculture is very different in its social and ecological consequences from subsistence agriculture, or even farming by locals to supply local markets. It is volatile, subject to global market fluctuations. And there is an insatiable quality to it, as long as there is money to make or, because of the role of finance in agriculture and taxes, debts to pay. As a consequence, fields are planted when they should rest, herds are expanded when they should be reduced, and so on, leading to the rapid degradation of the land.3

The 1800s were a time of great scientific advances, including in knowledge of the conditions that create and destroy soil fertility, but the economic system discouraged effective application of that knowledge. As Holleman says, “greater scientific understanding did not prevent increased soil degradation anymore than greater knowledge of climate science in more recent decades has prevented the quickening of climate change.”4

What had been a circular process — farms fed humans and human waste fertilized the soil — became a linear one, in which food was transported from farms to cities and peoples’ waste was dumped into rivers.5 Hugh Gorman calculates that “very roughly, the flow of nitrogen into English cities by way of food supplies increased from about 800 tons in 1500 to about 9,000 tons in 1800.”6 The flow of nitrogen from farms to urban sewers escalated rapidly in the following decades.

Age-old nutrient cycles were being broken, and the land’s fertility was falling. Karl Marx called this “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”7

That rift was primarily addressed by shifting food production elsewhere. Marx wrote that by importing grain from Ireland, Britain “indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.”8

If he had lived longer, he would also have seen the westward shift of cash-crop agriculture in the United States, enabled by genocidal wars against indigenous peoples, and the parallel process in England, where the amount of land devoted to wheat fell 50% between 1870 and 1900, while wheat and flour imports, mainly from Canada and India, rose 90%.

As Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster write, “in order to compensate for the effects of their robbing of their own soil, European nations and the United States sought to rob other countries of their soil nutrients, creating a global metabolic rift.”9

The Fossil Nitrogen Era

While many farmers in England and Germany gave up trying to make money from depleted soils, those who could afford to do so turned to manufactured fertilizers, particularly nitrogen-rich mixtures based on seabird excrement imported from a unique ecosystem off the coast of Peru.

The Humboldt Current, flowing north along the west coast of South America, brings huge quantities of small fish up from deep cold waters. For millennia, those fish have attracted millions of seabirds that nest on the rocky Chincha Islands off Peru’s coast. Their guano — the Quechua word for seabird excrement — is rich in the most important elements for plant growth, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. That area gets almost no rain, so for millennia guano accumulated rather than being washed away: in some places the deposits were 20 metres thick.

Peasants in the area had long used guano to enrich sandy soil near the shore and rocky soil high in the Andes. Local laws and customs limited the amounts taken each year, and protected the seabirds that ensured the resource remained plentiful.

In the 1840s, English landowners “discovered” this powerful fertilizer and seized upon it as the solution to their soil fertility crisis. Vaclav Smil describes what followed as “guano mania,” a mad rush to extract every scrap of guano that could be found, as quickly as possible.10 The damage done to the environment and the livelihoods of Peruvian farmers played no part in the calculations of merchants who stripped the islands bare. Nor were they concerned about the lives of the workers, mostly indentured laborers from China, who dug the guano under brutal conditions that Marx described as “worse than slavery.”11

In 1856, the U.S. Congress, concerned that British merchants had an effective monopoly on Peruvian guano, passed the Guano Islands Act, authorizing U.S. citizens to take “peaceable possession” of any uninhabited island with guano deposits. Nearly 100 small islands were eventually seized by U.S. companies under that Act, but none of them had the quantity and quality of guano found off Peru.12

Over three decades, some 12 million tons of guano were shipped north, mainly to England and Germany. The fertilizer-quality guano was removed far more quickly than seabirds could replace it, so the deposits were soon exhausted. By the 1880s the guano trade had all but collapsed.13

By then, however, northern investors had turned their sights inland, where the extremely dry climate had preserved another source of nitrogen. Millions of years ago, in the Atacama desert of what is now northern Chile, salts carried by ocean spray had dried and accumulated to form caliche, an ore rich in sodium nitrate. Caliche was harder to extract and refine than guano, but there was a lot more of it. Exports reached 1.3 million tonnes in 1900, and 2.5 million tonnes in 1913.14 Sodium nitrate from Chile, laid down in the Miocene epoch, had become a major source of reactive nitrogen.

Coal was a source of even older fossil nitrogen. To make coke for steel production, and gas for municipal lighting, coal was heated in the absence of oxygen to drive out impurities, which included small amounts of nitrogen left by ancient plants that had not been entirely reduced to carbon. The manufacturing process converted the nitrogen to ammonia, which until the 1880s was simply released into the air, but when technology was developed to capture the ammonia, it was widely adopted in Britain and western Europe.

By 1900, mining and manufacturing processes were producing more than enough phosphorus and potassium to replace the amounts removed from the soil by agriculture, but fossil nitrogen didn’t even come close. Smil calculates that total production of Chilean nitrates and ammonia from coke ovens that year was about 340,000 tonnes of reactive nitrogen — “on the order of 2% of all nitrogen removed by that year’s crops and their residues.”15

Restoring the world’s soil with fertilizer would require a qualitative leap in nitrogen production. That could only be done by extracting it from the air — and that would require support from the powerful forces that would use nitrogen to kill people, not feed them.

Military Nitrogen

By the end of the 19th century, knowledgeable observers knew war was coming. Britain, once the world’s most powerful industrial power, had been matched or surpassed by Germany and the United States. As early as December 1887, Frederick Engels accurately predicted that rivalry between the great capitalist powers would lead to “a world war … of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined.”

“Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent .… That is the prospect for the moment when the systematic development of mutual one-upmanship in armaments reaches its climax and brings forth its inevitable fruits.”16

The “mutual one-upmanship in armaments” was an arms race that included heavy investment in high-powered guns, battleships and submarines, and accumulation of the modern warfare’s essential chemical — nitrogen.

Though most accounts of the 19th century nutrient rift emphasize nitrogen’s importance for agriculture, much fossil nitrogen was actually used to make gunpowder and high explosives. An article by noted industrial chemist Charles E. Munroe, published in 1909 by the U.S. Naval Institute, gave the following figures for sodium nitrate use in the United States in 1905.

Industry Tons
Fertilizer  42,213
Dye 261
Chemicals 38,048
Glass 11,915
Explosives 133,034
Acids 29,301
Total 254,772

Fertilizer used less than 17% of imported nitrates, while explosives used more than half. Munroe didn’t have figures for other countries but believed that “a much larger percentage of Chilean nitrate is used in agriculture in Europe.” Still, even there the fast-growing armaments and explosives industries depended on fossil nitrogen.

“It may, therefore, be safely asserted that but tor the discovery and exploitation of the nitrate fields of Chile the explosives industry, as it is known to-day, would have been impossible, and the developments in mining and transportation which have characterized the last half century could not have been made.”17

Ten years earlier, in a widely published address, Sir William Crookes, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, had warned that Chilean nitrates could soon be depleted as guano had been, and if that happened, “England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat… We are drawing on the earth’s capital, and our drafts will not perpetually be honored….”

Crookes’s views were a mixture of solid science, crude Malthusianism, and outright racism. He claimed that “the great Caucasian race” owed its superiority to eating wheat, which was “the fit and proper food for the development of muscle and brains.” If wheat production fell, the world’s “white population” would be surpassed by “other races … [who] are eaters of Indian corn, rice, mullet and other grains.” Bizarre as such ideas were, they were characteristic of a ruling class that believed it had a god-given right to rule the world.

Without a new and reliable source of nitrogen, Crookes said, England would be at a military disadvantage in a war, because any of the other great powers could block access to Chilean nitrate. Not only is nitrogen needed for white peoples’ food, it is an essential component of gunpowder and other explosives, so such a blockade could be disastrous. “The fixation of atmospheric nitrogen, therefore, is one of the great discoveries awaiting the ingenuity of chemist.”18

Munroe’s 1909 article described several projects for extracting nitrogen from the air that he thought would make it possible to “conduct a prolonged war without robbing the soil on which people depend for food of its fertility.” He argued that the U.S. government should not only support the nitrogen industry, but should intervene to ensure that production was “strategically located throughout the country as to be reasonably well protected from attack, so that they may serve the military establishment in case of foreign invasion from any quarter, or of internal uprisings in any locality.”19

As Mark Sutton of the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen writes, by the beginning of the 1900s, “the western world had effectively become a ‘fossil nitrogen economy,’ as both food and military security depended critically on these nitrogen sources.”20

The following years featured intense efforts, particularly in Germany, to end military and agricultural dependence on a resource that could easily be blockaded if an inter-imperialist war broke out.

The eventual key to success was not just clever science, but clever science and engineering combined with sufficient capital to build and maintain massive production facilities. And, as is often the case with “free-enterprise” projects, state support and war played critical roles.

[To be continued]

Part Four of this series will examine how capitalism’s solution to the nitrogen shortage has produced massive oversupply and overuse, and an even larger rift in Earth’s global metabolism.


  1. Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth (MIT Press, 2001), 29.
  2. Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005); 199.
  3. Hannah Holleman, Dust Bowls of Empire (Yale University Press, 2018), 71.
  4. Holleman, Dust Bowls, 78.
  5. Ian Angus, “Cesspools, Sewage, and Social Murder: Environmental Crisis and Metabolic Rift in Nineteenth-Century London,” Monthly Review, July 2018, 32-68.
  6. Hugh S. Gorman, The Story of N, (Rutgers University Press, 2013) 49.
  7. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (Penguin, 1981): 949-50.
  8. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Penguin, 1976), 860n.
  9. Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Guano: The Metabolic Rift and the Fertilizer Trade,” in Ecology and Power, ed. Alf Hornborg and Brett Clark (New York: Routledge, 2012), 72.
  10. Smil, Enriching, 42.
  11. Karl Marx, “English Atrocities in China,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (MECW) (International Publishers, 1975). 235.
  12. Historians often describe this as the beginning of U.S. imperialism: that of course ignores the massive seizures of land from indigenous people in North America.
  13. Guano is still harvested in the Chincha Islands today, but the quantities are small and the nutrient content low.
  14. Smil, Enriching, 46. The exported ore was about 15% nitrogen.
  15. Smil, Enriching, 57.
  16. Marx Engels Collected Works, Vol. 26, 451.
  17. Charles E. Munroe, “The Nitrogen Question from the Military Standpoint,” Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 35 Part 2 (1909), 722-23.
  18. William Crookes, “Address of the President Before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Bristol, 1898,” Science, October 28 1898, 562, 571, 573.
  19. Munroe, “Nitrogen Question,” 727.
  20. Mark A. Sutton, “Assessing Our Nitrogen Inheritance,” European Nitrogen Assessment (European Science Foundation, 2011), 1.

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