Phosphorus saved our way of life — and now threatens to end it

By | April 16, 2023

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

In the fall of 1802, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt arrived in Callao, Peru’s major port, just west of Lima. Humboldt had timed his visit to coincide with a transit of Mercury, which he planned to observe through a three-foot telescope, in order to determine Lima’s longitude. He set up his instruments atop a fort on the waterfront, and then, with a few days to kill before the event, wandered the docks. A powerful stench emanating from boats loaded with what looked like yellowish clay piqued his curiosity. From the locals, Humboldt learned that the material was bird shit from the nearby Chincha Islands, and that it was highly prized by farmers in the area. He decided to take some home with him.

When human beings invented agriculture, some ten thousand years ago, they were, almost immediately, confronted with a conundrum. Crops need nutrients to grow, but harvesting them removes the nutrients, leaving the soil unfit for future harvests. Early farmers got around this bind by letting some fields lie fallow; spreading animal waste, including their own, on the land; and planting legumes, which possess restorative properties. But they had no clear idea why these practices worked. By Humboldt’s day, savants in Paris and London were starting to figure out what it was, exactly, that crops required. A Prussian chemist analyzed some of the clay Humboldt had brought home and found that it contained high concentrations of two essential nutrients: nitrogen and phosphorus. Guano offered an answer to the age-old problem of soil exhaustion; as Gregory Cushman, a historian at the University of Kansas, has observed, it “was the Miracle-Gro” of its moment.

Peru’s Indigenous people had been collecting guano from the Chincha Islands for centuries. (The word “guano” comes from the Quechua wanu.) But once Europeans decided to exploit the islands—they were delayed for a few decades by the Napoleonic Wars and the campaigns of Simón Bolívar—the Peruvian government enthusiastically extinguished all Native claims. In 1840, it agreed to a monopoly arrangement with some European merchants, and in the next fifteen years more than a million tons of guano made their way from Peru to the United Kingdom. The miserable work of harvesting the stuff was largely performed by Chinese laborers, under conditions of near-slavery. [Continue reading…]