The history of the modern world, from the period of industrialization on, has been characterized by a rapidly growing population and the struggle to accelerate food production to sustain that population. This struggle has manifested itself, repeatedly, in tragic episodes of human suffering centered on food and nutrition. The Great Famine in Ireland, the Indian Famine of 1899, and various food crises during the American Dust Bowl all serve as examples of the human fight to maintain a stable economy in the face of a growing, hungry population.

By the 19th century, the population of the world totaled 1 billion. Scientists and economists asked themselves, “How can the global marketplace sustain that many people?” Agriculture needed a simple solution. For inspiration, scientists looked to historical precedent. Farmers had long added extra materials to the soil to positively affect fertility and crop growth. Manure had been popular for millennia, but farmers also used more refined materials like wood ash, gypsum, and guano.

Justus von Liebig
Justus von Liebig

In the 1840s, the field of fertilizer science was advanced further by the contributions of Justus von Liebig. Liebig was the first to make the case for the use of ammonia in boosting crop growth and plant nutrition. He also attempted to create a commercially viable alternative to guano by treating phosphate of lime in bone meal with sulfuric acid, though this never proved successful. But he did convince farmers to use ammonia as a source of nitrogen, one of the primary nutrients for plant growth.

In the 20th century, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch pioneered the Haber-Bosch process, still in practice today, as a way to mass-produce ammonia, making it cheaper and widely available for farmers. This was an important period in the development of fertilizer science.

A tabletop apparatus demonstrating the Haber-Bosch process.

The Haber-Bosch process, along with the Oswald process for the production of nitric acid and Erling Johnson’s industrial method for producing nitrophosphate, all developed in response to the food crisis of 1899, spearheaded the development of new fertilizers into industrial commodities capable of being mass-produced and widely distributed.

HQ Fertilizer samples B&W -0002

In the 1930s, America endured its own crisis of food security, rooted in a collapsing economy and an unforeseen environmental disaster. The Dust Bowl had ravaged the soils in America’s rustbelt, making it impossible for farmers to produce enough food to sustain the swelling population. In response, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented his New Deal plan for boosting the post-Great Depression economy. This specifically affected Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where a nitrate plant, built to create munitions for World War I, stood dormant. Here, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s National Fertilizer Development Center (NFDC) was established – which would later give birth to the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC). Muscle Shoals became the cornerstone for America’s new fertilizer industry, which would be enough to lift the U.S. agricultural economy out of depression and begin a new era of development.

All the old methods of producing nitrate, phosphate, and ammonia were implemented in Muscle Shoals, while new ones were developed and applied, allowing the world to enter an innovative phase of food production. The world was better prepared to handle food security crises; where there was a famine, a Green Revolution would likely follow (as it did in Mexico and India), and IFDC was established as a way to mitigate food crises in the developing world by passing on technology and training.

Modern food crises are different than the old ones. The world is populating quicker than ever before – with an expected 10 billion by 2050. With no more land and water with which to produce more food, future solutions must rely on new technologies to double crop yields on existing agricultural space. And more food must be produced in a way that has less impact upon the environment compared to current practices.

Recent developments such as fertilizer deep placement (FDP) are helping, but these are short-term solutions. Each day, we ask ourselves, “What is the long-term answer?” While an important concern, the agriculture industry has proven time after time that it is capable of rising to the challenge. But this is a sign of hope, because with a foundation for modern agricultural development in place, we are now better prepared to address the enduring issue of food security.