Finding alien beauty in America's industrialized fertilizer mines

Intrepid Potash Cane Creek Mine, Moab, Utah. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)

“You are what you eat” is something many of us hear more often than we’d like to. It’s often spoken in a tone more appropriate to “shut up and eat your vegetables.”

The next time you hear either phrase, try responding with, “Yes, but what does our food eat?” That may not get you off the hook, but it might take the conversation in unexpected directions.

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That’s what happens at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City. “The Ground Our Food Eats: Industrial Fertilizer Production in the USA” turns the tables on conventional thinking by inviting visitors to connect the dots — to see the links between what we eat and what we feed the plants we eat.

It’s not a pretty picture.

But there is beauty — as well as elegance and efficiency — to the thinking that went into the exhibition. The same is true of its nearly 200 images — many of them breathtaking — and three videos, shot from drones flying over otherworldly landscapes. The ethical questions raised by the information presented are profound and equally important.

Mosaic New Wales Plant, Bone Valley, Florida. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)

The exhibition starts simply: In plain language, a placard explains that 95% of the food eaten in the United States is the product of industrial agriculture and that the nutrients those plants need — primarily nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — come from industrially produced fertilizers. Those fertilizers are made of inorganic elements and fossil fuels, all dug from the earth in open-pit and underground mines.

Three touch-screen monitors — each featuring one of the three main elements in fertilizer — take visitors virtually to the mines, plants, processing facilities and transportation hubs where the food for our food is produced. You visit 21 states and see how the disparate sites — often in out-of-the-way places — are linked by a vast network of natural gas pipelines, railways, rivers and seaside ports.

On the back wall, three hi-res videos, each five minutes long, play on a monitor. In the videos, you hover over a nitrogen plant in Louisiana, a phosphate mine in Florida and a potassium extraction facility in New Mexico. The Earth looks like another planet. The mines and plants have the presence of alien space stations.

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Intrepid Potash, Wendover, Utah. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)

You also discover how the production of the chemicals that go into fertilizer is linked to other businesses, including the manufacture of ammonia and explosives, both military and civilian. A corporate network — of subsidiaries, partners and competitors — comes into focus, outlining relationships among multinational corporations, the U.S. government, the agriculture industry and the vegetables in your salad — not to mention the feed that livestock eat, until they become dinner.

“The Ground Our Food Eats” reveals that whether you are a carnivore, a herbivore or even a vegan, you are, first and foremost, a geophagist: a person who eats the Earth.

Phosphate Mine, Bone Valley, Florida. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)
Intrepid Potash HB Solar Solution Mine, Eddy County, New Mexico. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)

The Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., (310) 839-5722, through Oct. 14. Open Friday-Sunday. www.clui.org

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