Shock turns to anger after Beirut explosion

Ruins: Many in Lebanon say government negligence led to the explosion. © Getty

Should ammonium nitrate be banned? The deadly explosion in Lebanon is just the latest caused by a common fertiliser. Some say it is essential to modern farming. But others want it outlawed.

It vaporised buildings, threw cars into the air, blew out windows, and brought down roofs. It was felt 240 kilometres away in Cyprus.

On Tuesday, life in Beirut changed in a matter of seconds. Countless videos captured the moment at 18:08, when a catastrophic explosion tore through the city. A mother giving birth to her baby; a couple’s wedding. Normal life turned upside down by a blast one-tenth the size of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

As Lebanon declares a state of emergency, aerial photos show a city in ruins.

In seconds, the blast did more damage to Beirut than 15 years of civil war. Badly damaged hospitals – already overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients – are treating the injured in car parks. Many thousands have been left homeless. The official toll – for now – stands at 137 dead and 5,000 injured.

Shock and grief have quickly turned to anger. How did the authorities allow 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to sit in a port warehouse for six years, in the heart of a densely populated city?

Whilst the Lebanese demand answers, experts warn this sort of accident is “grimly familiar”. Globally, ammonium nitrate has been responsible for 240 explosions in the last decade, killing hundreds of people. But, if it is so dangerous, why is it not banned?

The answer lies in the science of agriculture. When our ancestors began to farm 10,000 years ago, they discovered that the soil must be fed with compost and manure to replace the nitrogen that crops need to grow. The more intensively we farm, the harder it is to keep the land fertile and nitrogen-rich. As the human population grew, so did our impact on the nitrogen cycle. Scientists began to look for a better way to enrich the soil.

The invention of chemical fertilisers transformed agriculture forever. It led to a revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, when ammonium nitrate was used alongside other agrochemicals to increase food production.

However, its explosive properties also make it a common ingredient for homemade bombs used in terrorist attacks, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

Unlike other explosives, it is cheap and easy to acquire, and some countries have responded with tight rules and regulations. But experts say that it is impossible to prevent some of the 21.6 million tonnes produced each year, falling into the wrong hands.

Its explosive potential is not the only concern. The fertiliser contaminates drinking water and is linked to increased cases of cancer, diabetes, and birth defects. It also causes algae blooms that kills off life in seas and rivers. Worst of all, its production contributes to CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gasses that cause climate change.

We are heavily dependent on fertilisers to feed the growing world population. But there are alternatives, including a solution that would have been familiar to our ancestors: crop rotation.

So, should ammonium nitrate be banned?

Feed the world

Some say yes. The tragic events in Beirut are a wake-up call to the world, but the warning signs have been there for years. Chemical fertilisers damage our health, our environment, and contribute to climate change. And, in the hands of incapable authorities or dangerous groups, ammonium nitrate is a lethal weapon.

Others say no. Almost half the world’s population owe their lives to chemical fertiliser. Ammonium nitrate is relatively simple to make and banning it will not stop terrorists from making bombs. It may reduce the likelihood of deadly explosions such as the Beirut explosion – but at the cost of a global famine greater than anything we have seen before.

You Decide

  1. Has your life ever been changed in a moment?
  2. Is cheap plentiful food worth the risk to people and the environment?

Activities

  1. Watch the videos in the Expert Links and write a short description of what it must have been like to be in Beirut during the explosions.
  2. Research an alternative to chemical fertilisers and present the pros and cons to an adult.

Some People Say...

“This is a basic problem: to feed 6.6 billion people. Without fertiliser, forget it. The game is over.”

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), American soil scientist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that one of the greatest challenges facing the world is how to feed the growing population. Artificial fertilisers, like ammonium nitrate, currently supply food for 3.5 billion people – almost half the world’s population. By the end of the century, the UN expects there to be 11 billion people, putting even more pressure on agricultural land to produce enough food. At the same time, climate crisis, conflict, and pandemics will put further strain on the food supply chain.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether the short-term gain of high crop-yields from artificial fertiliser outweighs the damage to the environment and communities. Supporters argue the risks are associated with the misuse of fertiliser. Where it is regulated and controlled, it has a substantial benefit to people’s lives. Banning it would lead to a global food shortage. But critics say it is far too dangerous to be regulated effectively and the long-term impact on the climate could be catastrophic.

Word Watch

Hiroshima atomic bomb
This week is the 75th anniversary of the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing between 129,000 and 226,000 people.
15 years of civil war
Between 1975 and 1990, the small, Middle Eastern country was devastated by conflict between different religious and political groups. Thirty years later, the divisions in society remain deep whilst the power-sharing government is weak and unstable.
Ammonium nitrate
The mammoth cargo of agricultural fertiliser arrived in Beirut in 2014 on a Russian ship. Described at the time as a “floating bomb”, it was impounded by the port authorities for being unseaworthy.
Hundreds of people
In Tianjin, China, 800 tonnes of ammonium detonated in 2015, killing 173 people. In the same year, explosions in an arms dump in the Congolese capital Brazzaville left 250 dead.
Agriculture
Farming.
Nitrogen cycle
Nitrogen is taken out of the atmosphere by “nitrogen-fixing” bacteria, so it can be used by plants in growth. It returns to the atmosphere through decomposition and by draining off into the ocean.
Invention
In 1909, the German chemist Fritz Haber successfully converted nitrogen gas into ammonium nitrate, which can be absorbed by plants. Seventy-eight percent of air is composed of nitrogen, but in a form inaccessible to organic life.
Agrochemicals
A chemical used in agriculture, such as a pesticide or a fertiliser.
Terrorist attacks
One tonne of ammonium nitrate (AN) mixed with fuel oil is sufficient to cause a deadly explosion. AN has also been used in attacks by the IRA and Al-Qaeda.
Algae blooms
Excess nitrogen in the water causes microscopic aquatic plants to grow, reducing oxygen and light in the water and killing off other life. These “dead zones” can devastate ecosystems and communities that depend on fishing.
Climate change
Fossil fuels burnt to produce artificial fertilisers are a major source of CO2 emissions. But fertiliser use also puts the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which is 300 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat and causing global warming.
Crop rotation
The ancient technique of leaving some fields to rest, and growing alfalfa or clover to “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere back into the soil, helps restore the nitrogen levels.

Subjects

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