More than a century ago two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, perfected a technique for taking nitrogen from air and combining it with hydrogen to make ammonia, now widely used to make nitrogen fertilizers. What came to be known as the Haber-Bosch process unleashed a revolution in crop yields which were no longer limited by natural inputs of nitrogen.
So important is this process to crop yields that it is estimated that without it half the people alive today would starve. If the worldwide application of nitrogen fertilizers had no adverse consequences, there would be no problem continuing business-as-usual. But the consequences have become worrisome:
- Increasing algal blooms fed by nitrogen runoff in waters around the world are killing aquatic life and endangering humans who wade or swim into such waters. This is the cause of so-called "red tides" and also of the famous "dead zones" at the end of some of the world's largest rivers.
- Nitrogen fertilizers stimulate microbes in the soil thereby increasing their conversion of nitrogen to nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Those fertilizers are responsible for a dramatic rise in nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. This gas is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Nitrous oxide is the third most important greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide and methane.
- The imbalances and blooms caused by nitrogen fertilizers are threatening many species and thus the planet's biodiversity.