Some scientists believe the world would be better off without“the Haber-Bosch (H-B) process for industrial nitrogen fixation. There is the good and bad of fertilizers, especially nitrogen as in the question, how do we “Feed the Ten Billion” referencing population growth. But we have to use nitrogen responsibly and keep the nitrogen out of our rivers,streams, and oceans or algal blooms will kill all life. But even organic farming has to be just as careful with organic nitrogen from manure which has the same adverse affect on water quality. In 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus published “Essay on the Principle of Population,” in which he stated that while population increases geometrically, food supply increases arithmetically, concluding that at some time the world will run out of food. The essay is as important as that of Darwin’s on evolution, and both remain true, even though Malthus is derided today. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer delayed Malthus’s prediction by probably 300 years, but not forever.
The world population gained its second billion from 1825 to 1927, and science began its role in food production. Varietal improvement through selection, mechanization, and better crop and animal husbandry kept up with food demand.
By 1850 the first commercial nitrogen fertilizers, largely bird guano from Chile and Peru, were being used to increase grain yields. But by the end of that century it became apparent that these supplies were limited. Since nitrogen compounds were also immediately needed for explosives, it was imperative that someone quickly discover a way to synthesize compounds from atmospheric nitrogen.
Fritz Haber, a German, applied earlier research on gas equilibria to ammonia synthesis, and the process was patented on June 8, 1911, exactly a century ago. Carl Bosch, a metallurgist, was indispensable in putting together the catalysts and management expertise to make the synthesis commercially viable. The two shared the Nobel Prize for their invention. The first commercial plant, built in central Germany, away from Allied Forces’ air strikes, went into production in April 1917. But most of the nitrogen went to the war effort, delaying the end of WWI. World War II slowed the expansion of fertilizer production, and it was not until the 1950s, when the United States ramped up production, that nitrogen fertilizer use became widespread. This was when the world population reached 3 billion.
What about agricultural production? Let’s assume the 3 billion in 1950, before synthetic nitrogen fertilizers led to spectacular grain-yield increases, was the world’s carrying capacity. Allowing for the slow progress in crop breeding, especially grains but also forages, perhaps the world could feed 4 billion in a steady state. Realizing this fact, civilization could work toward stabilizing the population, developing a world model different from capitalism. Oil reserves would have lasted far longer with the fewer people on the road, air pollution would be less, and anthropogenic global warming probably would be a lesser threat.
Cities and farms would be smaller, and the self-contained and managed farm (family farm) would be the norm, not the exception. Without grain surpluses, large confinement operations could not exist. Soil erosion would be controlled with the perennial-grain rotations that would be common. Soils would be healthy. Food would be healthy, too. Rotations require minimal pesticide use, and without confinement feeding antibiotics would have no use on the farm. What we now call organic food would be just normal food.
Republished in part from Center For A Livable Future