Where will the protein come from?

by Jeremy Cherfas on June 13, 2011

As everyone and her dog ventures an opinion of how much more food will be needed to properly feed how many more mouths by when, it is worth bearing in mind an idea that was a little bit hidden in Oliver Morton’s wonderful introduction to The Anthropocene, in The Economist a couple of weeks ago.

Although nitrogen fixation is not just a gift of life — it has been estimated that 100m people were killed by explosives made with industrially fixed nitrogen in the 20th century‚Äôs wars — its net effect has been to allow a huge growth in population. About 40% of the nitrogen in the protein that humans eat today got into that food by way of artificial fertiliser. There would be nowhere near as many people doing all sorts of other things to the planet if humans had not sped the nitrogen cycle up.

There’s a chart, too.

Industrial nitrogen fixation does not, of course, require oil, but it does require lots of cleaner, cheaper energy, and there’s still no sign of that just around the corner.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

back40 June 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm

A glaring defect in Oliver’s narrative is that it ignores technological progress. Another is that it ignores history.

First history: human manipulation of local and planetary nitrogen cycles began long, long before the Haber process was invented. Mineral nitrates were mined – fossil nitrogen so to speak – and organic nitrates were collected from far flung deposits (see Guano Islands Act) and used to intensify both agricultural and military activities in a few places. Even industrial manufacture predated Haber, see Birkland-Eyde.

The trajectory of that better historical account suggests that better methods would continue to decrease energy requirements in this process as it has in so many others. Haber is dominant now because it was cheaper. Specifically, many industrial chemistry processes are advanced by materials science in ways that relate to energy; enzymes and very small scale nano processes have hugely reduced energy requirements. The limits of such advances are not known and are progressing rapidly enough to compel our attention.

If you accept the conclusion, however reluctantly, that the evolution of intelligence was a a new epoch in Earth’s history, and not one to be lamented, then your plausible future narratives must insightfully account for that unfolding change.

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Jeremy June 13, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Perhaps technology will offer ongoing supplies of nitrates that plants can use. Something better. I know I’ve been waiting more than 30 years for nitrogen-fixing wheat …

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Kevin Mayes June 14, 2011 at 12:49 am

I remember applying for my first job, it was at the “Institute of Molecular Biology” at Sussex University in 1977. The example the interviewer gave for what they were trying to achieve was precisely that- “nitrogen-fixing wheat”.
Ok so 40% of the nitrogen in the food we eat is industrially fixed, but if our farming consisted of integrated systems, or “mixed farming” as we used to call it back in the day, and if the same effort had been put into fine-tuning those systems on an ecological level to achieve the appropriate balance of nitrogen fixation and use as has been thrown into the bottomless cesspit of the biotech industry, And if we didn’t flush all our valuable nitrogen,as well as phosphate and potash down the lavvy to pollute our dying oceans- then we probably would have zero need for industrially fixed nitrogen, don’t you think?
Oh the job? I was offered it- but thankfully (in hindsight) I declined to take it in favour of engineering.

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Jeremy June 14, 2011 at 8:27 am

So I wasn’t the only one who remembered that promise …

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back40 June 14, 2011 at 4:39 am

No Kevin, that’s bad maths. Take away 40% of the protein and you get something like Haiti, a death spiral of ever reducing production and ever increasing degradation.

Mixed farming is admirable and effective compared to monocropping, but unless it is done in an already wonderfully fertile and benign place – they exist, though they are few – fertility will still have to be imported, and at a higher energy cost since it will be bulkier and heavier to move, apply and cultivate into the soil.

What is useful is to practice frugal agronomic methods and use smart fertilization to achieve high yields and ever improving farms. That’s what the smart money does, and has been doing for a long time.

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Jeremy June 14, 2011 at 8:31 am

Agreed, if you remove anything from the farm, you’re going to have to replace it eventually. Can it be done, for nitrates, with only clovers etc?

Your final point is really interesting. I suspect that, partly because the externalities are borne elsewhere, the price of fertilizers has been artificially low. That encourages less frugal methods, imposing greater externalities …

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back40 June 14, 2011 at 5:11 pm

In the places where fertilizers have been egregiously abused they have been subsidized, which decouples frugality from use far more than any disregard for externalities. India and China are good examples of that, but it happens elsewhere to some extent.

Green revolution era policies in India heavily subsidized NPK (without consideration for more than a dozen other nutrients), and those nutrients were applied with abandon. But it was too expensive so the government quit subsidies except for nitrogen. Political interests of both producers and consumers conspired to require a silly policy. Growers responded by only using nitrogen. It doesn’t matter how much nitrogen that you apply to a field if that is not the nutrient in short supply, so it leaks away uselessly to make trouble elsewhere.

In China ammonium bicarbonate (ABC) was subsidized. It decomposes and evaporates if you look at it funny. It’s so unstable that it was used at many times the effective rate and still often achieved little. They’ve mostly switched to urea now. It is unstable too, be less so than ABC.

We could do far more for growers and the environment by learning to use fertilizers effectively, parsimoniously, than bleating about a return to primitivism and illiteracy for aesthetics reasons. If we are sincerely concerned we will intelligently respond.

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Kevin Mayes June 15, 2011 at 4:50 am

@back 40, you seem to have a serious fixation on this dread of “return to primitivism and illiteracy”. It is something of a mantra on your own blog, I notice. Let me illustrate my case for small scale:- 2 adjecent properties on the same boulder-clay soi, both an egual mix of hill and riverflat.

Me. 40 ac, 1/2 ac. market crops. 20 Dairy goats, Remainder sheep and beef cows- Lawnmowers, until I expand my gardens, & some bush. Actually I could run the same business on 6 to 10 ac. without the sheep / cattle with minimal loss of income.
Fert. bill 3,000 dollars.( and falling as residual fertility increases- I do annual soil tests.) that being rock phos, potash, lime, micronutrients principally boron. No nitrogen bought in. groves of tree lucerne fed to goats create ample for crops, clovers provide N for pasture and conservation (hay & silage).
Output, 10,000 kg market crops, 40 fat lambs, 16 weaned calves.
Farm gross income 60,000 dollars
Personal net income income 30 000 dollars plus all I and my family can eat from the farm. I buy breadflour, salt, butter, small sundry items.

My neighbour. A good fellow, and judged to be a good farmer by his peers:-
1000 ac.
3000 sheep + followers.
80 breeding cows + followers raised to slaughter
buys in friesian bulls to fatten.
Output, 4,000 fat lambs, 100 finished beeves.
Farm gross income (guess) 400,000
Fert bill 60,000 dollars. (his residual fertility will be falling as he has “capped” his fert. spend to what he can afford.)

Personal income 60 000 dollars buys his food (except mutton and beef) at the supermarket
two half-time workers, maybe 20 000 dollars each

Can you see the difference in terms of
Output per acre?
Employment per acre?
Proportion of farm income that remains on the farm?
Fertility status?
Personal food security?

‘Nuff said, I think.

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back40 June 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm

You are math challenged as well as intellectually dishonest. That may seem like gratuitous abuse, but that is also your personal style so it seems fitting. You don’t talk about ideas or issues, you attack people. Is that home grown too?

Anecdotes are not evidence. Do you begin to grasp the defects in your thinking? I hope so since you are so far from any comprehension that a beginning is all that can accomplished.

Kevin Mayes June 14, 2011 at 8:43 am

Why does a 40% reduction in industrially fixed nitrogen equate to a 40% decrease in available food protein. I contend that a move away from prairie scale monocultures to smaller mixed farms / horticulture systems, alternating legumes with cereals / roots and proper returns of “wastes” from consumers close to the producers can conserve almost all fertility apart from calcium, which is largely removed in the groundwater, but which the earth has in abundance anyway. Smaller farms produce more per hectare under appropriate small-farm systems, utilising niches etc. Only economics gets in the way.

Why is Haiti such a basket case? (actually I have no idea, being a small-town hick) almost certainly inappropriate systems inevitably imposed from the outside, issues with land tenure and so forth.

We’ll never agree on this one. Polar opposites. You a think big technocrat (realist, under the present paradigm), me a think small peasant horticulturist (dreamer, at the present). Only time will tell…….. Baseljet and Crapper have a lot to answer for with their reticulated sewerage and flushing toilet. Saved the world from typhoid but condemned it to starvation…..

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Jeremy June 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Guys; keep it a bit civil; you are, after all, both guests here.

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Kevin Mayes June 15, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Of course ;-)

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