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.