recent unfortunate and devastating event occurred on 5th August 2020 in Lebanon when a huge amount (2,750 tonnes) of explosive ammonium nitrate material which was negligibly stored in the port of Beirut had caused a giant explosion resulting in the loss of several human lives, infrastructure and also increasing the already existing economic and health crises in the country. The whole world was shuddered by the news and watching the explosion with a trail of mushroom clouds.

The Mitti Collective sends deep condolences to the people of Beirut

The sad incident intrigued our curiosity about the material behind it. Ammonium nitrate is a substance not only used in explosives, but also in the field of agriculture as synthetic fertilizer. Among available synthetic fertilisers for nitrogen, ammonium nitrate is preferred for its less concentration. This inorganic material, produced in millions of tons annually worldwide, is also a component for producing explosives that has caused severe human violence in the past apart from usage in industrial explosives. Charan K. Nichenametla from The Mitti Collective presents this aspect in more detail:

Just like how our human body needs several nutritional elements to sustain life, in a similar context plants also require several primary nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These nutrients in the topsoil are used by plants for overall plant growth and need to be replaced with sufficient quantities over time. Before the green revolution, people used to utilize naturally available organic matter such as crop residues, animal manure and other organic origin, in order to replenish this pool of soil nutrients. These fertilizers are harmless to humans and to the environment. But with the advent of synthetic fertilisers, the ancient and traditional methods of using organic fertilizers have been replaced by chemical based inorganic methods.

Synthetic fertilizers have been used for more than a century for fixing nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in soil for enhancing soil fertility. Despite their short-term good crop results, their long-term yield and crop health need yet to be studied more closely. Besides, synthetic fertilisers manufactured artificially, they have adverse negative environmental impact such as soil infertility and polluting water bodies over the time. Millions of organisms living in soil, which helps to fix important nutrients are disturbed and affected with external chemical inputs.

I would like to emphasize the production and usage of one macro nutrient: Nitrogen, which plays a vital role in plant growth development. It is well illustrated in the UN Global Sustainable Development report published in 2019, where optimal management of nitrogen is essential and ignoring this aspect can lead to either poor nutrition value in human systems or irreversible environmental impact. A research study from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows how the extensive use of nitrogen in croplands is responsible for more than 60% of nitrogen pollution globally. Another joint paper from the USA and China shows that overall nitrogen fertilizer consumption in the world increased by 100 teragrams annually between 1961 and 2013.

The right amount of Nitrogen is crucial for the balance of natural systems. Source: UN Global Sustainable Development report 2019

Given the dangers and environmental harms of ammonium nitrate, we suggest policy makers, industries, and government bodies reduce the production and consumption of such harmful chemical compounds for agricultural practises and encourage promotion of using natural and organic fertilizers.

Moreover, we directly address every farmer and cultivator who is currently using ammonium nitrate fertilizers with the pledge to reconsider both the human and ecological disadvantages of this material, and to seek natural alternatives.


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