Commentary: Bad reporting causes ‘fear the fertilizer’

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The national media uneducated about fertilizer is substituting the word fertilizer for ammonium nitrate (AN). It is as though these non-ag reporters think there are only two types of fertilizer anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate.

They apparently have no understanding of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as the key ingredients for commercial fertilizers.

A prime example is a little article I ran across on popsci.com explaining that researchers at Sandia Labs in Albuquerque, N.M., are publicizing that AN can be turned into another form of dry fertilizer that isn’t explosive in nature. The reporter started the article off by writing, “The same chemical that makes fertilizer so useful also makes it a really cheap bomb fuel.” That is really lumping all fertilizer into one category.

And of course to confuse uneducated readers, the author mentions pressure cooker bombs and fertilizer bombs in the same sentence. The fact she didn’t say that pressure cooker bombs use fertilizer as the explosive could easily be missed by the casual reader.

The author did do some research, probably on the internet, because everything on the internet is true. She reported that the first recipe for making AN is more than 350 years old. She then wrote that after “centuries of research into other fertilizers, ammonium nitrate remains one of the cheapest and best.” To prove she is getting her information off the internet, she places a link to a site with the words “improves both the quantity and quality of protein-containing crops, which is a tremendous benefit to humanity.”

The really good part of the reporter’s story is buried, just like I’ve done. The news is that Sandia Labs researchers are publicizing the potential to mix iron sulfate with AN to manufacture a non-explosive form of dry fertilizer.

Sandia Labs quoted its chief researcher Kevin Fleming, “The ions would rather be with different partners,” Fleming said. “The iron looks at the ammonium nitrate and says, ‘Can I have your nitrate rather than my sulfate?’ and the ammonium nitrate says, ‘I like sulfate, so I’ll trade you.’”

The resulting mixture is inert, even combined with an igniter such as fuel. The claim is that the resulting fertilizer is just as effective as AN and contains some sulfur and iron. The contention also is that iron sulfate is cheap because it is commonly thrown away by foundries and the mixing/manufacturing process would not greatly increase the price for a quality nitrogen-based fertilizer.

Sandia Labs is earning positive publicity by announcing that it isn't going to patent its fertilizer innovation.

Then we are back to the conclusion by the reporter that fertilizing crops with commercial fertilizers is a dangerous proposition that can be avoided. She wrote, “With any luck, it means farmers worldwide will soon be able to fertilize crops without worrying about explosions, too.”

It is like the reporter has read hundreds of reports worldwide about how fertilizer spreaders/applicators have blown up going across the field as AN was being applied.

I think we are headed into a panic period of “fear the fertilizer” by the public, no matter what kind of commercial fertilizer is being stored or applied. We’ll be seeing more of the message from the organic believers that only manure is the true fertilizer that man was meant to use.  


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