The Atlantic

Will Humans Run Out of Fertilizer?

It helped people spread and multiply. Now critics worry it's destroying the planet. An Object Lesson.
Source: Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters

“Nobody adores fertilizer,” the writer Shellen Lubin once mused. Lubin isn’t entirely correct. Bill Gates, for example, has admitted to being “a little obsessed with fertilizer.” Yes, fertilizer. The stuff you sprinkle, spray, and spread over plants to help them grow. Not the “all natural” kind that originates in the guts of farm animals, but manmade fertilizer derived from natural gas, a fossil fuel.

Most people don’t think about fertilizer, but few innovations are as central to modern life. In the 20th century, manmade fertilizer helped avert human catastrophe on a massive scale. With population growth outstripping the food supply, experts predicted millions of people would starve. Fertilizer helped farmers grow more food on less land and feed a growing population, proving the experts wrong.

“Two out of every five people on Earth today owe their

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic8 min read
The End of Netanyahu’s Unchecked Reign
The results yielded no clear path to a governing coalition, but represented a rejection of two dangerous ideas.
The Atlantic7 min readPolitics
The Democratic Debates Aren’t Pleasing Anyone
The candidates hate them. The campaigns hate them. The press hates them. For once in American politics, there’s a consensus.
The Atlantic13 min read
How to Keep Teachers From Leaving the Profession
After 38 years in education, Judith Harper thinks what teachers are missing is more time to learn from one another.