Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Burning the walls for heat

Tom Philpott has a pair of excellent articles in an excellent series of them about... um, synthetic nitrogen.  Wait!  This is actually good!  The first article is about how America is increasingly reliant on imported nitrogen fertilizer.  If you liked wild price swings in the price of oil, just wait for the coming wild swings in the price of food.

The other article is both more substantial and more worrying: basically, soil chemists have shown that the application of artificial fertilizers degrade the soils ability to hang on to both carbon and nitrogen, which have the added effect of impairing the soils ability to hang on to water.  (This isn't really news to the organic food community.)  If this research is borne out, it basically means that chemical fertilizer represents a full-spectrum assault on soil.

This is yet another in our series of examples of things western industry does that look efficient but turn out not to be.  Pick your other favourite example, but synthetic nitrogen fertilizer -- responsible for feeding billions today -- may not have been worth the effort.

The advocates of conventional agriculture like to say that organic food can't feed the world.  This may be true (I think it isn't) but in any case it's a nice way of eluding two facts: one, um, you may have noticed a ton of hungry people on the planet today even with your conventional food system, and two, there's no evidence that organic agriculture undermines the ability of future generations to feed themselves.  You can't say the same thing for conventional agriculture.

So yeah, chemical agriculture "feeds the world", if you mean "feeds mostly corn and cattle, and then ignores the bottom billion people alive today, and totally ignores anyone with the misfortune to be alive 50 years from now."  If that's what you mean, we're doing just fine.


Zack said...

Interesting...this would serve to rebut my usual argument of "You can't feed information age populations with bronze-age farming techniques."

Although I suppose really, the planet can't support information age populations anyway... regardless of what wealthy baby boomers are eating.


Anonymous said...

So do you refute the accomplishments of Norman Ernest Borlaug or not then?

john said...

Um, neither? I don't think it's my place to refute Borlaug or not. This research, at most, would add a darker note to his legacy.

It's like asking whether Winston Churchill is responsible for the Greek financial crisis. You could probably connect the dots in some way, but the responsibility is a lot more diffuse than that.

JC from Asia said...

So let me put it another way. Would it have been better if Borlaug had never made his breakthroughs and helped save a billion lives then? I think you should avoid phrases like "may not have been worth the effort" because like it or not those starving masses have been saved by chemical fertilizers pioneered by Borlaug and his colleagues.

From Wikipedia by Borlaug himself: "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things." And they have been denying these things.

I'm afraid the Paul Ehrlich train has already left the station. And good riddance. The new lot may well be proved right or wrong. But do not casually dismiss the lives of a billion people with words like "may not have been worth it". Otherwise me and a billion others would not be enjoying the benefits of "civilization" that you have been enjoying for decades.

john said...

Ah, I see where the belligerence is coming from there. There was a cavalier tone there I didn't intend. My apologies.

By "not worth the effort" I simply meant self-defeating in the long term. If developing-world farmers are emancipated at the expense of the whole planet's food security, I think even the developing world would agree that's a bad deal.

JC from Asia said...

Thanks John. And I apologise for the harshness in MY tone. Its just that I come across exactly the sort of environmentalists that Borlaug talks about every day and it really gets me.

But yes you are correct indeed if the whole planet's food security is diminished. But I still believe that technologies implemented to secure the needs of the global poor were and are necessary. If (and that's an if) it proves that there are new problems encountered in our abilty to grow food we will have to make serious changes just as we do for Climate Change. But changes which do not endanger the lives of those already saved.

There will always be costs involved for such changes, and we have to be willingto accept them. But I'm not talking about having to choose between paying $1 or $2 for a litre of fuel. No one should have to choose between eating and starving. If it means we kick the can down the road for another 50 years, then so be it. I'll be arsed if I'm gonna let some suit in Washington deny aid to food programs in Malawi because they use synthetic fertilizer on their wheat crop.

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