Locating a chemical plant in Texas City offers no mystery; it’s an industrial city with a great deepwater port — but why an ammonia plant? Ammonia is used as a refrigerant and as an ingredient in making explosives, but the really big use for ammonia is in making synthetic fertilizer.

Prior to 1920, the world’s farmers used essentially no synthetic fertilizer. They had to use a combination of crop rotation, animal manure and plant compost. Today, we call the manure and compost “organic fertilizer.”

The world population in 1900 was about 1.6 billion people. The world’s farmers at that time could barely supply the foodstuffs needed to support this population. Beef and pork were somewhat a luxury in 1900.

Yield per arable acre at that time was limited by the ability to get the needed nutrients for growth back into the soil once it was depleted by use. The key limiting growth nutrient has almost always been nitrogen in a form that’s usable by crops.

In 1909, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, invented a catalytic, high-pressure process to produce ammonia from its elements, hydrogen and nitrogen. The modern version of that process starts with natural gas to supply the hydrogen and starts with air to supply the nitrogen.

Once synthetic ammonia was able to be produced in large quantities via the Haber process, food production was able to steadily increase because the needed crop-usable nitrogen was available. World population could now grow because the necessary food could be dependably produced.

Today, the world population is about 7.8 billion people, almost a fivefold increase over 1900. It’s not an exaggeration to say this increase was made possible by the ability to produce synthetic ammonia and the resulting fertilizer.

It has been estimated that about 35 percent to 40 percent of the current global food supply depends directly on synthetic fertilizer. This ammonia-based fertilizer has been so successful in increasing crop yields and improving marginal farmland that we now use significant portions of our harvest to raise animals for meat and even to make ethanol to add to gasoline.

Those who propose we go “all organic” with no use of synthetic fertilizer haven’t done their homework. It would be impossible ... unless they’re proposing a much smaller world population combined with a drastically different and less tasty diet.

And, that’s why an ammonia plant in Texas City.

Joe Concienne lives in Galveston.

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(2) comments

Jose' Boix

It is refreshing to read Mr. Concienne's post regarding the Gulf Coast Ammonia (GCA) plant investment in our community. This is especially gratifying when the information shared is rationally scientific and fact-based.

As additional information, the GCA plant will make Anhydrous Ammonia (AA), a chemical product that has been managed locally for years. AA from Texas City's Monsanto Plant was "pipelined" to Monsanto's Chocolate Bayou Plant in Alvin for the years I worked there (1965-2000). Just my added thoughts.

Mary Godfrey

Fact-check:

Synthetic fertilizers have long-term negative effects. Synthetic fertilizers kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil that convert dead human and plant remains into nutrient-rich organic matter. Nitrogen- and phosphate-based synthetic fertilizers leach into groundwater and increase its toxicity, causing water pollution. Fertilizers that leach into streams, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water disrupt aquatic ecosystems.

Synthetic fertilizers increase the nitrate levels of soil. Plants produced from such soil, upon consumption, convert to toxic nitrites in the intestines. These harmful nitrites react with the hemoglobin in the blood stream to cause methaeglobinaemia, which damages the vascular and respiratory systems, causing suffocation and even death in extreme cases (when blood methaemoglobin level is 80 percent or more).

Synthetic fertilizers damage the natural makeup of soil in the long term. Plants that grow in overly fertilized soil are deficient in iron, zinc, carotene, vitamin C, copper and protein.

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