Thursday, April 3, 2008


I've now progressed roughly halfway through Michael Pollan's bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The book came to me highly endorsed by several of the finest recomenders I know, and so far it has not disappointed. Pollan devotes most of his first 200 pages to the topic of corn production in America, and it is gripping and informative throughout. I consider this a great testament to Pollan's ability. (Time magazine devotes five pages this week to a cover story about corn, and though informative, I feel it falls short of gripping.)

Perhaps most interesting to me in these first 200 pages was Pollan's discussion of the significance of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber discovered how to "fix" nitrogen – that is, harness atmospheric nitrogen for use as a potent fertilizer by combining it with hydrogen and heating it with fossil fuels. I'm not doing a good job of explaining it, maybe, but the point is that crops need nitrogen to grow, and before 1909 the amount of nitrogen in the soil on earth was limited.

According to Pollan:

"By 1900, European scientists recognized that unless a way was found to augment this naturally occurring nitrogen, the growth of the human population would soon grind to a very painful halt."

A geographer named Vaclav Smil claims (as paraphrased by Pollan):

"Fixing nitrogen is the most important invention of the twentieth century. Two of every five humans on earth today would not be alive if not for Fritz Haber's invention."

This is because chemical nitrogen fertilizer allows vastly more food to be grown per acre, and without it there wouldn't be enough nitrogen on earth to grow the crops to feed the billions of people who now live on the planet. Indeed, Pollan points out, after Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China, the first major order the Chinese government placed was for thirteen giant fertilizer factories.

During coffee breaks this past week, which are usually spent at the farm's kitchen table in the company of Intern Tom, Farmer Rob, and sometimes Farmer Jeremy, I tried to incorporate what I've been learning from the book in our conversations. One idea I posited was, "So, if the whole farming world suddenly went back to organic production (meaning no use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer), the result would be death from starvation of billions of people."

I'm not sure if that's even true, but conversations that followed soon settled into this related question: "If you're a farmer who thinks it's a good idea to grow food in a natural, sustainable way, but you know that adding a moderate amount of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer will double your crop yield per acre, does it make sense to do?

Tom said "no," but Rob said "yes, maybe" and they're both guys who are believers in the many merits of organic farming. Nitrogen is a complex issue.


Dani said...

I just read the Omnivore's Dilemma and I found it very thought-provoking, especially the first two parts of the book. I think one of Pollan's strengths is the ability to come off a (somewhat nerdy) but ordinary person who's just pursuing a question that crossed his mind. (Incidentally, I think this is one of your strengths, too). This makes him very different, from, say, Gary Nabhan, whose book "Coming Home to Eat" (about local food) is very alienating.

This is my favorite passage from TOD (to spoil it for everyone, I suppose):

"Back in the seventies, a New York food additive manufacturer called International Flavors & Fragrances used its annual report to defend itself against the rising threat of 'natural foods' and explain why we are better off eating synthetics. Natural ingredients, the company pointed out, rather scarily, are a 'wild mixture of substances created by plants and animals for completely non-food purposes -- their survival and reproduction.' These dubious substances came to be consumed by humans at their own risk."

That passage had me laughing out loud for a week.

Anonymous said...

The myth that organic production couldn't feed the world is falling apart. The data are actually starting to show that over time, the yield from organic production is about equal to chemical production. Some people are starting to argue that after a farm gets into real ecological balance following years of quality organic practices, yields are higher.

Check out the Rodale Institute's research pages for a starting place for yield data.

Anonymous said...

Hello Farmbedded fans,
Nitrogen is the basic ingredient of amino acids and therefore protein. Though the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen, most of that is inaccessible to plants. The beauty of legumes is that they have simbiotic bacteria on their roots that can utilize atmospheric nitrogen (N2). In exchange for energy from the plant, they provide nitrogen to the plant.

It could be that at Howell Farm we could use more atmospheric nitrogen by increasing the proportion of clover and other legumes that we grow. I think we would also have to increase the number of livestock that can use legumes, so that we can move the nitrogen to where it is needed in the form of manure.

Bob points us to some great work by the Rodale people. The University of Wisconsin has also done some great work on crop rotation and yields from organic/sustainable systems.

Farmer Rob

RMB said...

Fritz Haber's discovery of the catalytic formation of ammonia definitely should be applauded; however,that same discovery that allows us to have cheaper fertilizers also can be/is used to produce explosives. He also is known for developing the technique of deploying chlorine gas that was used in WWI.
Nobel and the history of the Nobel Peace Prize is pretty interesting too.
Scientific discovery is something that can save millions, but unless it is properly thought through and regulated it can be just as distructive. I don't see that as an excuse however to keep our heads in the sand though and hold on to tradition for tradition's sake.

Anonymous said...

I was starting to think we couldn't be friends anymore and then an interesting post on chemistry!

Nitrogen is an interesting gas, but I'm on team liquid nitrogen. I don't know how you'd use it on a farm, but it is fun stuff and I honestly think you'd get a kick out of it.

Somewhat redeemed, 7.