Nitrogen, problem or solution?

We all know about the problems of producing too much carbon dioxyde, causing climate change. What is less known, but certainly as serious is our producing of too much nitrogen oxydes in the air (also a strong greenhouse gas!), plus too much nitrogen in other forms in the water and in the soil.
Read the text and answer the questions too learn about that. Perhaps you have to use your chemistry book…

“About 2 billion humans, a third of mankind, owe their lives to the discovery of the German chemist Fritz Haber in 1909: he found the way to turn nitrogen gas (which is in its non-reactive form nearly 80% of the atmosphere around us), into ammonia, the basis of synthetic fertilizer. The worlds’ ability to grow food exploded after that. Infertile land could be transformed in fertile fields producing crops year after year. The human population exploded too, starvation was reduced and public health improved. Today still many people do not get enough to eat, but this is not because not enough is produced, but because of inequality and extreme poverty. It is politics, not lack of food.”


  1. Read the text: Nitrogen: problem or solution. You can also divide the work (if you thinkt the article is too long…) divide your clas in groups of three, in each group one students reads the first part (A high price, Too much of a good thing, The consequences), somebody else reads part two (What to do, Precision farming, Meat, Energy) and the third person reads part 3 (Solutions, Personal choices). As you see, everybody reads the introduction of course…
  2. Answer the questions together discuss your answers in class.
  3. Make a presentation of the whole problem plus possible solutions to the rest of your school, or at a parents’ evening, or in your school paper…
    a. Find out which reaction Haber invented. (Formula?)
    b. In chemistry they talk of the Haber-Boch process. Who was Bosch, what did he invent?
    c. The text says: ‘Infertile land could be transformed in fertile fields producing crops year after year’. Why was it not possible to use the same field in many places year after year before?
    d. What did farmers do before synthetic fertilizers were available?
    e. Which chemical elements do plants need, outside N and C?
    f. How does fertilizer cause algal blooms and dead zones in the sea?
    g. What is the connection between algal blooms and dead zones in the ocean?
    h. Describe the natural nitrogen cycle. Including chemical reactions and the groups of bacteria involved
    i. How can overfertilizing diminish biodiversity?
    j. Why do farmers generally use much too much fertilizer? Are they having too much money?
    k. Why are the proteins in meat such an important food? Which other food contains a lot of proteins?
    l. The ‘gas production’ of cows and pigs bring nitrogen in the air. Which gas is that?
    m. What can be done with animal and human waste to prevent it becoming pollution?
    n. Why is using biofuel making nitrogen pollution worse?
    o. Wetlands between fields and rivers, lakes or sea could prevent problems in de bodies of water.How?
    p. It is not unhealthy to eat meat. But too much is. How can overconsumption of meat threaten your health?
    q. People should switch to a so-called Mediterranean diet. What does is mean exactly?