The Bird Poop That Changed The World

The Bird Poop That Changed The World

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Hi, this is Alex, from MinuteEarth. Some of my ancestors were farmers in Sandy
Spring, Maryland, and in the 1840s, their soil was going bad – it could no longer support
crops. They’d tried to improve it with everything
they knew of, yet nothing worked, so they were going to have to leave to find newer,
more fertile farmland. But then they heard about a magical substance
that was purported to make harvests plentiful… and that was arriving from Peru to the port
of Baltimore. My relatives put their hopes in this substance,
traveled to Baltimore and filled a wagon… with bird poop. That’s right. They were among the first people in the United
States to spread this dried bird poop – called guano – on their farm fields in the hopes
of restoring their livelihoods. And it actually worked; according to Sandy
Spring records, their harvest went from 3 bushels an acre to 30 bushels an acre. They wrote that: “Our young people found
there was no need now to emigrate to newer, richer soils”. But what was so special about Peruvian guano
that made it different from the other things they’d tried? Well, they didn’t know it at the time, but
the guano was especially rich in two elements – nitrogen and phosphorus – that all plants
need in order to grow. Those elements become depleted in most farm
fields, because as plants grow, they absorb nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil. So when farmers harvest their crops each year,
they’re also taking away some of the soil’s nutrients, which makes it harder for new plants
to grow. And guano? It’s 20% nitrogen and 4% phosphorus – a
sprinkling of it can replenish the soil as much as an entire shovel full of manure, which
is just 0.5% nitrogen and 0.2% phosphorus. There are two main reasons guano is so rich. Number 1: pee… is something birds don’t
do, but they still need to get rid of extra nitrogen, so they turn it into a white goo
that they mix together with their poop and squirt out in a single stream of nutrient-rich
disgustingness. But Peruvian guano is especially rich because
coastal Peru has a really dry climate. So, unlike in wet places, where rain washes
the nutrients out of bird poop, the nutrients in Peruvian bird poop stay put, as does the
poop itself; it dries out and piles up into giant mounds of guano. Guano that, once it was discovered by Europeans,
got harvested and shipped by the ton to nations like Britain, Belgium, and the US, where it
helped save my ancestors’ community. But people in Sandy Spring stopped using guano
within 30 years, not just because it ran out – which it did – but also because guano helped
people realize that it was Nitrogen and Phosphorus that were important to plants! So we started grinding up rocks rich in phosphorus
from fossilized bacteria poop, and rocks rich in nitrogen that got absorbed from the air. Earth’s atmosphere is actually around 80%
nitrogen, and we also figured out how to convert this nitrogen gas directly into a form that’s
chemically useful for fertilizing crops. That’s why, today, when the soil loses its
nutrients because of farming, we don’t have to move our farms to new, fertile soil. Instead we can move the fertility to our farms.

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