This Really Bugs Me

I get things wrong sometimes – I’ve had slip ups when speaking and said things I didn’t intend to say.  I’ve written things that I wish I had the chance to rewrite because I explained things poorly.  I’ve even gotten my facts mixed up from time to time.   Still, it bothers me when someone who should know better delivers information that is blatantly wrong.

Yesterday I was looking at YouTube videos regarding compost tea.  As anyone who has ever looked up compost tea on YouTube knows, if you look long enough you’ll eventually come to videos of Dr. Elaine Ingham.  She’s one of the biggest proponents of compost tea out there and is also Chief Scientist at the Rodale Institute.   Here’s a link to one of the videos that I ended up watching.  Interestingly, it doesn’t have much to do with compost tea.

To be fair, she makes some excellent points in the video about people needing to conserve the life in soil.  And I did like her basic definition of soil and dirt at the beginning.

Other points aren’t as well made.  As I was viewing this video I heard something that really ticked me off.

Go to 9:20 on the video and watch for a couple of minutes.  Listen to the insights about wartime munitions.

Then forget what you heard because it’s all just wrong.

Look, I know Dr. Ingham is a proponent of organic foods and techniques, but, if you’re going to talk about history, especially if it’s the history of a practice you’re opposed to, then you should really try to get it right.

She starts by talking about leftover munitions from World War Two and how we found that they could be put into farmers’ fields to kill weeds.


It’s true that one of our most used herbicides, 2,4 D, came from World War Two – but it wasn’t a munition (at least not in the classic sense of the word), and it wasn’t actually used in the war to any great extent.  It was released for use by farmers after the war was over.  And it sure wasn’t an explosive (otherwise there’d be lots of lawns in suburbia reduced to craters!)

Then she discusses using TNT as a fertilizer.  Was she joking?  If so that’s fine, but it didn’t seem like she was joking to me.

To be clear, while I’m sure somebody somewhere dumped TNT on their fields to see if it would work as a fertilizer, dumping munitions on fields to get plants to grow was in no way a common practice at any time.  In fact, a challenge for ecologists is getting rid of old munitions in contaminated sites (like old factories that made bullets and shells).

And then she says that synthetic nitrogen is Second World War technology, and that it’s the reason the Allies won.


Synthetic nitrogen is First World War technology and the Germans came up with it.  Haber and Bosch, the two guys who worked it out, both won Nobel Prizes for it.  (As a side note Haber was known as the father of chemical warfare for his WWI exploits with chlorine and other poisonous gasses).

Look, it’s not the end of the world if Dr. Ingham didn’t know this stuff, but my goodness, if you don’t know something mightn’t it be wise to avoid the topic?  If anyone is interested, the best books on synthetic nitrogen are Vacliv Smil’s Enriching the Earth and Thomas Hager’s The Alchemy of Air.

There were other problems on the video too.   For example, her bird guano comment didn’t really make sense since by World War Two it wasn’t economically realistic to use it any more –the guano, mined in Peru, had been largely used up – it’s not a quickly renewable source of fertilizer.  And the rain forest analogy she used is a terrible one because a rain forest is a relatively closed system containing organisms highly specialized for living in that environment while food production systems aren’t closed systems (and can’t be unless we reuse our own waste for fertilizer).  But I’ll leave those alone.  They were more irritating than infuriating.

Unfortunately Dr. Ingham has a little bit of a history with getting accurate information out.  I won’t go into it, but you can read the following if you’re interested:

I believe that the Rodale Institute is a quality institution, that its goals are honorable, and that organic techniques need to be given more consideration and implemented more frequently than they currently are in our country and the world.  That said, I question how seriously the good work that Rodale does will be taken with Dr. Ingham as its Chief Scientist if she continues to deliver information of the quality seen in this video.

11 thoughts on “This Really Bugs Me”

  1. The English control of nitrates is one of the reasons Karl Foerster, German horticulturist (Calamagrostis X acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’) looked for garden plants not requiring fertilization. Fascinating the way war, munitions and gardening intersect.

  2. “Organic” proponents have little choice but to provide disinformation to further their agenda. They know well enough that their methodologies have been mostly debunked, so in order for them to keep their jobs and keep money rolling in they have to insult the “other side”, as it were.

  3. A couple of tangential comments. In soil science classes many decades ago we were taught that one method of disposal of high nitrogen fertilizers was to compost them. Google ”composting explosives”. I didn’t examine the ghits, they may be nonsense or the real thing.

    My first experience with Rodale was a book club back in the 60s or 70s. My first book had ”anion” and ”cation” reversed from cover to cover. (I grew up among subsistence farmers who did everything organic and find the concept fascinating. I also studied some college chemistry.)

  4. I just finished reading The Alchemy of Air and highly recommend it. From a semi scientific layperson’s perspective it was a fascinating book about a period of history I really knew nothing about. I loaned it my spouse (German PhD ChemE) and he confirmed that the authors did their homework and pretty much got it right. Maybe we should chip in and send a copy to Dr. Ingram. She got her PhD in microbiology back in the early 80’s and I have no doubt that she really knows soil microbiology, but chemistry? Maybe not so much…

  5. I believe “synthetic nitrogen” is not the correct terminology. Nitrogen is an element and as such cannot be synthetic. Perhaps you are referring to nitrogen compounds such as ammonia.

  6. When people use the term synthetic nitrogen they are talking about manufactured N. as opposed to mined nitrate or natural N sources.

  7. I don’t know tons about post-war fertilizers, or really that much about fertilizers at all, but I do work with TNT. I’m guessing that most fertilizers are soluble in water, and while TNT does contain lots of nitrogen, it’s not water soluble, nor is its main breakdown product, DNT. I seem to recall that once TNT finds its way into a site’s soil, it is considered a persistent soil contaminant.

  8. I’m not a real fan of compost tea. I think if one had to make it and use it on something, then use it ONLY on house plants and only a little at a time. I don’t doubt that alot of Chemicals championed in the time of the Green Revolution came as a result of technologies from the war efforts. After all Agircultural chemicals make great bombs for terrorists today. One does have to wonder how different our planet Earth would be if the ecology and further understanding of the natural world had it’s own multi-billion dollars Manhattan Project.

  9. As a former explosives user (strip miner) and farmer, I can confirm that in Oklahoma and Kansas Amonium Phosphate is both used as fertilizer and in combination with blasting caps as explosives. This hasn’t changed since my dad started using them in the ’70s and as far as we can tell, its been used there since post WWII. Maybe Dr. Ingham wasn’t spot-on, but sounds fairly accurate to me… although I don’t know that it was actually left over stock from the war, it was certainly produced by the some of the same companies. -I would also like to confirm that compost tea has worked a lot better than AmPho ever has as a fertilizer. -If organic doesn’t work better than the chemical alternatives, you’re doing it wrong.

  10. Hi Joel, Yes ammonium phosphate can be used for explosives as well as fertilizer. However, ammonium phosphate was not used as an explosive to any large degree in WWII — It was not a left over munition. The nitrogen for the explosives used in WWII were in the form of nitrates (TNT, for example, is a nitrate). Now Dr. Ingham could have said something like “After WWII, the nitrogen fixing plants that were built for producing explosives turned their production to fertilizers.” If she’d said that I’d have been OK with
    it — but she didn’t say that, she said that munitions, like TNT, were used as fertilizer — and that’s simply wrong. If you want to forgive her this mistake that’s up to you — but let’s not say it’s insignificant because to any self respecting soil scientist it’s not. Also, it bugs the heck out of me that she couldn’t mention that the Germans were the ones who figured out the nitrogen fixing process back before WWI process — this is something that soil scientists are taught in school in intro classes. In fact, I even teach it in my intro to horticulture course. In terms of ammonium phosphate being a good fertilizer — I agree with you, it isn’t. But I haven’t seen much benefit from compost tea either — I’m happy that you have.

  11. Thank you for your reply, Jeff. I value your insight on the issue and appreciate the clarification. -I agree that Dr. Ingham being the “authority” she is should be held accountable for accurate information. Furthermore, after perusing (“trolling” as the kids call it) this blog for a while, I’ve come to realize that what I’ve been calling “compost tea” is more accurately fertilizer tea with worm castings, etc… added. I added a post to a 2010 posting by Linda in regards to that colorful Justin character, wherein I had my “Eureka Moment” and discovered why this compost tea I keep hearing about doesn’t seem to fit the description of the one we’ve been using. -Wow! I had no idea there was such quackery afoot.

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