It’s estimated that two out of every five persons today wouldn’t exist without the potato having been introduced as a global staple beginning in the 16th
More than a few pampered people in the West, their food seeming to magically appear on their plates and never having experienced hunger and privation, might shrug and tend to dismiss this fact.
The challenging complexities involved in delivering the daily bread to multitudes had once been a topic of unsurpassed concern but now hardly resonates that urgently for those who take their sustenance for granted. Nonetheless, even as the lowly potato deserves humanity’s sincerest appreciation, it wasn’t a newly discovered tuber in the New World that produced the greatest change in the course of the history of feeding mankind, but a great watershed which took place as World War I was raging.
With Germany cut off from nitrates abroad, materials needed for the armaments industry, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch achieved the miracle of pulling the precursor of explosives — and fertilizer — from thin air, from the inexhaustible ocean of nitrogen, the gas composing 78% of Earth’s atmosphere. The Haber-Bosch process is the means by which inert nitrogen in the air, an element that is everywhere but which reacts to form chemical compounds only reluctantly, is heated and pressurized with hydrogen to form ammonia, the most basic of nitrogen compounds.
Of the species of bacteria able to fix nitrogen — bonding it with other elements — only few are intimately associated with plants, such as rhizobia for example living in the root systems of legumes. Every living thing however requires these nitrates since the double-helices of the DNA in the chromosomes of all plants and animals most critically can’t be constructed without nitrogenous bases.
For the entire duration of the history of life on Earth access to fixed nitrogen was an unbreakable ceiling for how much life could thrive on the planet. Whatever was produced by the few genera of microscopic organisms, and through lightning strikes, determined the extent of the world’s larder.
Farmers in the past made do as best they could with manure and rotating crops with nitrogen-fixing root bacteria to squeeze the most out of their fields. So what two German chemists accomplished in pulling the precursor of explosives from the ether to arm the Kaiser’s armies also turned out to be the seminal event in feeding the planet over the last century.
Naturally generated fixed nitrogen last year and every year supports a population of approximately 3.8 billion people, yet there are over 7.5 billion of us, giving rise to one of the most astounding facts. Half of the nitrogen compounds in the DNA of the chromosomes of all thirty trillion cells in our bodies — half, of it — is artificial, cooked up in ammonia factories around the world, meaning that half of us wouldn’t be here without the Haber process.
Some half a billion tons of fertilizer is produced via the Haber process every year, requiring 2% of the world’s energy to apply the heat and pressure demanded to force nitrogen pumped from the air to bond with hydrogen to form ammonia. To acquire that hydrogen an astonishing 5% of the world’s natural gas production, methane — 2/3 of which in the U.S. is extracted by hydraulic fracturing of subterranean rock layers with pressurized fluids — is fed into chambers and mixed with steam where both compounds react to give up their hydrogen components.
That’s how the world is fed, so those calling for an end to everything — no cars, no meat, no oil, no aviation, no coal, no gasoline, no steel, no plastic, no methane, no fracking — are naively appealing for no people as well, or at least fewer than are currently walking the Earth now. Half would have to go, if not you than me, since not all of us can survive a return to the epochs when our food ceiling was at levels imposed back in the Stone Age and before, when it was rhizobia bacteria and lightning that held sway over humanity and not the other way around.
The world’s population, fast approaching the ten billion mark, is a milestone to be reached around 2050, so increasing global agricultural output by mid-century should be a priority if such a population is to be fed. Strangling the supply of natural gas, ammonia, and fertilizer is certainly disadvantageous toward that end.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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