The Politics of Fertilizer

“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.” ~Karl Marx

“The United States undertook – first unofficially and then as part of a deliberate state policy – the imperial annexation of any islands thought to be rich in this natural fertilizer. Under the authority of what became the Guano Island Act, passed by Congress in 1856, U.S. capitalists seized ninety-four islands, rocks, and keys around the globe between 1856 and 1903, sixty-six of which were officially recognized by the Department of State as U.S. appurtenances. Nine of these guano islands remain U.S. possessions today.” ~ from Hungry for Profit, page 45.

In The Jungle, lead character Jurgis has truly plummeted to the depths of desperation when he accepts a job at the fertilizer plant. In the vicious reality of the stockyards, an assembly-line position slicing into the abdomens of animal corpses is preferable to shoveling fertilizer. It’s the stench. Un-washable, it permeates fabric and clogs pores.

Jurgis and the inescapable odor were on my mind as I began reading Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, edited by Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel. Though a mere slice of its spanning denunciation of agribusiness, this anthology provides fascinating insight on the fertilizer industry. From guano imperialism to chronically deficient soil, the politics of fertilizer are inextricably linked to the abuse of land, labor, and animals.

There is an intriguing military connection to the production and usage of agrochemicals, including nitrogen fertilizer. After all, “many of the pesticides used in agriculture were originally developed for military purposes as defoliants and nerve agents.” The process of producing nitrogen fertilizers is “the same process as the production of explosives.” The conclusion of World War II “freed up a large capacity to make nitrogen fertilizers” for domestic use. In a naïve attempt at resourcefulness, farmers were encouraged to make use of “the widespread availability of nitrogen fertilizer” (Magdoff, 51).

The adoption of this new approach meant the discarding of historically reliable methods. Pre-agrochemicals, agriculture relied on legume crops “to supply non-legumes with sufficient fertility” (Magdoff, 52). Legume crops, such as clover and alfalfa, were doubly useful in that they “convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use” and were also utilized as feed for ruminant farm animals (Magdoff, 52). With the removal of legumes and the purchase of fertilizer, there was no longer a necessity for farm animals in vegetable production. Thus the split between the growing of produce and the raising of farm animals for food into two entirely separate agricultural activities.

In many ways “this breakdown of the physical connection between the animals and the land producing their feed has worsened the depletion of nutrients and organic matter from the soils producing these crops (Magdoff, 53). Unattached to crop production, animal agriculture “became concentrated in certain regions: beef feedlots in the southern Great Plains, poultry in Arkansas and on the Delmarva Peninsula (composed of parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), and hog production in certain parts of the Midwest and in North Carolina)” (Magdoff, 53). From these locations, “geographically remote from where crops are grown,” the “animal wastes cannot economically be returned to the land in a nutrient-recycling process” (Magdoff, 79). The result is that “crop farms must use large amounts of synthetic fertilizers to compensate for the loss of vast quantities of nutrients” (Magdoff, 53).

The depletion of nutrients within the soil is a dilemma complicated by far more variables than just the availability of fertilizer. Over-farming, agrochemical dependency, and monoculture production have transformed once fertile soil into the malnourished farmland of today.

Yet is farm animal waste a requisite for successful farming? Surely I am not the only vegan grimacing at the thought of factory farm waste nourishing my vegetables. Even organic fertilizers include a variety of products derived through animal suffering.

Reading both Hungry for Profit and Vandana Shiva’s Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, I was frustrated by the insinuation that healthy farming practices inevitably include farm animals. Shiva in particular emphasizes a codependent relationship between farm animals and farming. “By using crop wastes and uncultivated land,” she writes, “indigenous cattle [in India] do not compete with humans for food; rather, they provide organic fertilizer for fields and thus enhance food productivity” (Shiva, 58). Of course, Shiva is lauding this sort of practice for the benefits it provides to independent farmers. Any benefit experienced by the cattle in question is only relative to the hideous torture of animals by factory farmers. The indigenous cattle described by Shiva, though perhaps treated more kindly for their importance to the family’s livelihood, are nonetheless objectified, commoditized, and exploited.

As with agribusiness in general, the possible solutions to agrochemical dependence and chronic soil infertility would require radical agricultural reform. My concern is that many envision this utopia of small-scale, localized farming in the way that Shiva described. The question becomes not simply how to transform the global agricultural system, but how to do so in a way that excuses farm animals from enslavement. And thus the challenge becomes that much more difficult.

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