Fritz Haber and the Creation of Fertilisers
Updated: Jun 6
Fritz Haber was instrumental in the creation of artificial fertilsers which we have since learned are not a sustainable method of production
As you sit back and sip your wine at our London wine bar, have you ever thought about the science behind the food that pairs with your drink? One man who changed agriculture and our food is Fritz Haber.
Who was Fritz Haber?
Fritz Haber was a German chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his work on the synthesis of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. The Haber-Bosch process (co-named with Carl Bosch, who later scaled up Haber’s discovery to industrial scale), allows for atmospheric nitrogen to be transformed into ammonia, which forms the building block of NPK fertiliser. NPK (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous) is responsible for the founding of modern agriculture and population growth from 2 billion in 1900 to 7+ billion today. A third of annual global food production, feeding half the world’s population, is produced using ammonia from the Haber-Bosch process. He was also the man responsible for the creation of chlorine gas in WWII and the pioneering of chemical weapons. A vast and complex legacy.
How did they make wine before fertilisers?
Before the Haber-Bosch process, agriculture relied on natural fertilizers such as animal manure and compost. This traditional method would be limited by supply efficacy and was often expensive, requiring the upkeep of animals, lots of human labour and lots of manure to cover large patches of land. Haber's approach allowed for the creation of synthetic fertilizers which could be applied to address specific deficiencies in the soil. These were more abundant, easier to transport and easier to apply. In an environment short on labour and ravaged by WWI, artificial fertilisers were a blessing.
How has the invention of fertilsers affected how wine is produced?
The invention of synthetic fertilizers had a profound impact on agriculture. It has allowed for continued intensification that can support an increasing population and higher yields of products at a level of consistency not previously seen in human existence. This has reduced hunger and malnutrition worldwide and approximately 50% of the global population relies on food grown with the help of synthetic fertilisers. It has allowed sites to produce ever higher yields. It has allowed for sites that were previously unsuited to agriculture becoming viable. In wine, it led to industrial fruit farming, grapes being produced on a massive scale where quantity, not quality, was the priority. Yields as high as 200hl/ha (20,000 litres per 100m x 100m plot) saw dilute, thin and unpleasant wine flood the market.
Do fertilisers used in winemaking have a negative effect on the environment?
Synthetic fertilizers have come under scrutiny for their environmental impact. The production of ammonia accounts for 2% of global energy consumption, 3% of global carbon emissions and 3-5% of global gas consumption. The overuse of fertilizers can also lead to soil degradation, erosion, water pollution, and harm to wildlife. The great strength of artificial fertiliser is its ability to respond rapidly to specific deficiencies in the soil. Short on nitrogen? Add nitrogen to your soils and reap the rewards. But long-term, the soil needs far more than just specific nutrition for its overall health. Over time, soils can degrade, lose their structure and start to erode, a problem that is potentially compacted when used in conjunction with heavy machinery. See the issues with the American dust bowl in the 1930s for an idea of what can happen. In addition, nutrients can run off into the local ecosystem before they have been absorbed by the vine. Algae blooms are fed by _ and have led to the destruction of marine habitats, reducing oxygen content in the water. Responsible use, in conjunction with other holistic methods in the vineyard, can minimise these effects but some negatives will always remain.
How are Aspen and Meursault helping the sustainability of the wine industry?
Reducing artificial fertiliser globally is a vexed question. Farming without it produces lower yields and is proportionally more expensive, requiring more labour to produce. If the entire planet switched to organic fertilisers overnight, it would not produce enough food to support the global population as it stands. Although glorious, wine is not essential for survival (depending on how you define essential!). However, at Aspen & Meursault we are trying to be more intentional about the products we source, from producers with their minds on the environment. Understanding the science behind our food, its history and its environmental impact, understanding how WWI munitions is linked to the production of our breakfast cereal, gives us the opportunity to support sustainable producers, to do our small part in reducing impact to the environment.
So, next time you enjoy a glass of wine at our London wine bar, take a moment to appreciate the science and innovation that has gone into the food on your plate. And, as always, drink with a sense of curiosity and appreciation for the world around us.