By H. E.
Food is the current topic of concern, as what is on our plates affects us all each day. The synergy of war, harvest, energy costs, and economics is adversely affecting global food price and availability. Drought impact on the last soybean crop in South America’s 1st, 3rd, and 4th export producers has production down 10% or more, wheat production and exports from Europe’s Ukraine and Russian breadbaskets are disrupted by war and sanctions. For the US the growing season is now beginning and whether there will be dry hot conditions impacting production remains to be seen. There are realistic concerns about near-term food availability and price that has attracted comments and solutions from the political class with one of the most stunning misinformed proposals coming from Samantha Power who was UN Ambassador during the Obama era and is now leading the US Agency for International Development under President Biden. On ABC News This week she stated:
“Fertilizer shortages are real now because Russia is a big exporter of fertilizer. And even though fertilizer is not sanctioned, less fertilizer is coming out of Russia,”
And Power said:
“As a result, we’re working with countries to think about natural solutions like manure and compost. And this may hasten transitions that would have been in the interest of farmers to make eventually anyway.”
From the time that people first aggregated into cities and nations the scourge of famine and starvation has followed. It has only been in the past few decades that global food security has finally lifted this historic threat. Modern food security largely derives from two of the most important scientific accomplishments of the last century, the Haber-Bosch process to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia fertilizer presently using about 1% of global energy and 3-5% of global natural gas production.
The second is Norman Borlaug’s effort to breed high yielding field crops. These both were Nobel winning science accomplishments and the positive impact on human health and global political stability in recent decades is beyond measure. It is high yield agriculture that permits the current population to be fed compared to the challenges that have occurred throughout all of human history. The political controversy is that feeding the world at the cost of its huge energy and fossil fuel footprint is already problematic and now more so with much of the production centered in sanctioned Russia.
For this a simplistic solution has been proposed that agriculture must move from a dependence on fertilizer into a sustainable future where the energy and fossil fuel use would no longer be necessary. Power stated that the current is an opportunity not to waste and one of her solutions is to move forward to the past centuries of using compost and manure much as her Irish ancestors did in the generations before to supplant the current global consumption of industrial fertilizer
Plants and all life around us need nitrogen most of which is destined for proteins and nucleic acids (DNA for example) in living systems. The nitrogen cycle of life has operated for billions of years on Earth and the rovers on Mars are in part looking to see if Mars once had a similar system. Making biological usable nitrogen from the atmospheric nitrogen takes energy, for instance lightning, or the function of an enzyme in a capable bacterium.
Although some plants such as a soybean “fix” nitrogen from the air it is not actually the plant but rather bacteria the plant sequesters and cultivates in its roots. Once atmospheric nitrogen is converted by physical or biological processes it can be used by other living systems. Because how nature converts atmospheric nitrogen to fixed nitrogen is both sporadic such as lightning and volcanoes or relatively low-density biological fixers usable nitrogen is not concentrated into the areas that humans use for growing crops. Of all the new nitrogen available for all uses in the biosphere over half of this global nitrogen is made by humans using the process pioneered by Haber-Bosch.
Quite simply there is not enough natural nitrogen available to maintain current global food production. There is no free lunch, to feed humanity requires massive energy that has adverse environmental impact hence the concerns of the sustainability advocates who then look to the past for the future.
Consider the implications to cease the use of fossil fuel sourced fertilizer. It will not work that once we have a quantity of sustainable food as a starting point that when harvested and used to yield compost and manure that can be recycled to regenerate same amount of food on next and subsequent years to never again to need the inputs of industrial fertilizer. Green dreams of feeding all current 9 billion people and many more to come with a light environmental footprint, if it only worked this way, unfortunately, this is the agricultural version of a perpetual motion machine. It would be like placing a fly wheel generator on an EV (electric vehicle) hooked to battery to generate energy while driving and to expect to be able to refill the battery each trip to its starting level and then to be able to drive the same distance day after day never again needing another plug-in recharge.
The losses inherent in any system makes this impossible and so the EV has a socket for new energy input. It is the same for agriculture which can never be a closed system with each year’s crop enabling the next in perpetual production. This is the reason why the Haber-Bosch process fossil fuel driven fertilizer is essential for world agriculture. It provides the means for massive new nitrogen input for each new crop production and thereby feeding the world at a level not otherwise possible. Fertilizer, better genetic varieties, and better control of pests and weeds feeding the world is why the global collapse predicted by 1970s futurists did not happen.
Returning agriculture for instance to the Ireland of early prefamine 1800s is a dangerous politically correct illusion that is contrary to all that has been learned and experienced at great human cost, especially from a diplomat who comes from the place of one of history’s famine horrors. The consequences of a world without fertilizer will be borne by unseen millions most often an ocean away. As a diplomat she more than most should know of the history of human grief and an empty stomach yet unless we have a bountiful yield of unicorn manure to fortify world agriculture this will result in food shortages, conflict, and migration. While this might well be a new work opportunity for a top diplomat to manage the conflict the rest of us might well want to avoid this nightmare, history has seen the results and it does not end well. As George Santayana said in 1905 ‘Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”.
Addendum from Charles Rotter.
H. E. is being kept anonymous as he is still teaching at a university and doesn’t need to deal with insane academics attacking him.
We have already had a preview of what will happen under Power’s suggested course of action.
Here’s an excerpt from another article on Power’s ignorant statements.
Sri Lanka made a sudden change from chemical fertilizers to manure and compost last year. How did that work out?
Sri Lanka is the future.
I strongly suggest reading the second article from Unprepared
And yes our current head of USAID actually said the vile words:
Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
via Watts Up With That?
May 4, 2022 at 12:50PM