DR. DICKSON DESPOMMIER
spent thirty-eight years as a professor of microbiology
and public health in environmental health sciences at Columbia, where he won the
Best Teacher award six times. In 2003, he was awarded the American Medical Student
Association Golden Apple Award for teaching. He has addressed audiences at leading
universities including Harvard and MIT, and he has also been invited to speak at
the United Nations. In addition, he has been asked by governments of China, India,
Mexico, Jordan, Brazil, Canada, and Korea to work on environmental problems. Despommier
lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
I am retired, and have been for the past two years. Nonetheless, I have elected to maintain my memberships in a number of scientific societies, allowing me to receive their monthly publications. But now, instead of hurriedly flipping through them in my lab on my way to conducting some experiment or other, I now leisurely peruse them in the comfort of my dining room over a hot cup of coffee. The result is that I can now savor the smallest of tidbit of information that used to routinely elude my scanning. Chemical and Engineering News has become one of my favorites. Granted, it’s not peer-reviewed, but it is an official organ of the prestigious American Chemical Society. It is actually pretty good for a newsy little magazine. It tracks all the major trends in companies dealing with the whole spectrum of the chemical industry, from dyes to soaps and detergents, nano-applications to pharmaceuticals, and of course, agricultural products.
In this regard, the February 28th, 2011 issue had a small piece on page 26 that really caught my attention. It was about the connection between the unrest in the Mideast and the fertilizer industry. Agriculture is big business in those desert countries, with Egypt leading the way in soil-based crop production. According to a 2009 report by the European Commission (EuroStat), “Among the MPCs, Egypt is the main producer, with18.0 million tonnes produced on average each year, followed by Morocco, Algeria and Syria with 5.8, 4.7 and 3.0 million tonnes respectively”. The flooding regimes of the Nile traditionally brought fertile topsoil from The Sudan to upper Egypt, enabling that country to sustain a farming tradition dating back to the time of the pharaohs. But everything changed in 1970 with the completion of the high dam at Aswan, forcing farmers along the world’s longest river to rely instead on nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium-based fertilizers; NPK for short. The nitrogen components of NPK are typically a mixture of ammonia-based nitrogen compounds (e.g., ammonium nitrate), and urea, the very same compound we excrete in our urine each and every day. In the Mideast, phosphorous comes from enormous surface deposits in the north of Jordan, while the organic nitrogen compounds (mostly ammonium nitrate) are derived from oil by a complex synthetic process known as the Haber-Bosch process (1918). It was originally used to make explosives, and modern mining operations still use it, particularly the coal industry. It would be a gross understatement to point out that oil is plentiful in many places throughout the Mideast, Libya included. Hence, there is a natural link between farming and the petrochemical industry. In fact, Egypt has five major fertilizer manufacturing plants, that together produce some 7 million tons of nitrogen-based product per year, making them self-sufficient for that critical ingredient (Société El-Nasr d'Engrais et d'Industries Chimiques (Semadco), Abu Qir Fertilizer and Chemical Industries Company, Abu-Zaabal Fertilizer and Chemical Company, Société Financiere et Industrielle d'Egypte, and El-Nasr Company). Virtually every one of these Egyptian companies has foreign partners based in Europe, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom that oversee the production of these essential compounds. While things appear to have calmed down in that country, because of the civil unrest that has spread to Libya, most of the executives and many of their middle management teams that run the Libyan oil industry have fled back to their home countries. Libya’s oil production has come to a dead stop. As a result, those facilities in Egypt dependent on Libyan oil have either shut down completely, or are significantly scaled back in production quotas for urea and other agriculture-related compounds. When either of these essential industries will resume to full capacity is problematic, at best. So, the take home lesson here is that when one essential industry fails, it sends ripples, and sometimes even big waves, out over the troubled waters of commerce, affecting all other dependent commercial enterprises. We only become aware of the industrial ecological relationships that they share in times of strife or economic downturns.
In the meantime, spring rapidly approaches and planting must commence soon or there will be nothing to harvest. In most experts’ opinion, this will be a disastrous year for crops for all Mideast countries. Should things go along as they have over the last 3 months, millions of already disadvantaged people will continue to feel the heavy weight of starvation and many will die from it. Of course, another way of dealing with the food production system, controlled environment agriculture, could provide at least a temporary solution to the food crisis for the entire area. Developing a M.A.S.H-like emergency response system for crop production inside specially constructed (i.e., modular and highly transportable) greenhouses would allow for humanitarian interventions at least for refugees that are forced out of their countries by political turmoil. As catastrophes linked to non-sustainable systems of soil-based agriculture continue to increase (unpredictable adverse weather patterns, civil unrest and war), waiting to see what happens next flies in the face of a strong public health desire to alleviate suffering. We must change the entire approach to how we get food on the table or our species will start to resemble just one more of Earth’s many failed ‘crops’.