dirt the erosion of civilization - from idfltfall...

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Unformatted text preview: from idfltfall illooltjolhttq‘ Sr G In [898 the president of the British Association, Sir William Crookes, addressed the association’s annual meeting, choosing to focus on what he called the wheat problem—how to feed the world. Crookes foresaw the need to radically restructure fertilizer production because society could not indefinitely mine guano and phosphate deposits. He realized that higher wheat yields would require greater fertilizer inputs and that nitrogen was the key limiting nutrient. The obvious long-term solution would be to use the virtually unlimited supply of nitrogen in the atmosphere. Feeding the growing world population in the new century would require finding a way to efficiently transform atmospheric nitrogen into a form plants could use. Crookes believed that science would figure out how to bypass legumes. “England and all civilised nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat. . . . Our wheat-producing soil is totally unequal to the strain put upon it. . . . It is the chemist who must come to rescue. . . . It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty."B Ironically, solving the nitrogen problem did not eliminate world hunger. lnsread the human population swelled to the pointwhere there are more hungry people alive today than ever before. 1‘ ll" 1. atmospheric nitrogen. On July 2, 1909, after years of attempting to synthe— size ammonia, Fritz Haber succeeded in sustaining production of liquid ammonia for five hours in his Karlsruhe laboratory. Crookes’s challenge had been met in just over a decade. Less than a century later, half the nitrogen in the worlds people comes from the process that Haber pioneered. Badische Anilin- und Sodafabrik (BASF) chemist Carl Bosch commer- cialized Haber’s experimental process, now known as the Haber—Bosch process, with amazing rapidity. A prototype plant was operating a year later, construction of the first commercial plant began in 1911, and the first commercial ammonia flowed in September the following year. By the start of the First World War, the plant was capturing twenty metric tons of atmospheric nitrogen a day. As feared by the German high command, the British naval blockade cut off Germany’s supply of Chilean nitrates in the opening days of the war. it soon became clear that the unprecedented amounts of explosives used in the new style of trench warfare would exhauSt German munitions in less than a year. The blockade also cut off BASF from its primary markets and revenue sources. Within months of the outbreak of hostilities the com- pany’s new ammonia plant was converted from producing fertilizer to nitrates for Germany’s ammunition factories. By the war’s end, all of BASF’s production was used for munitions and together with the German war ministry the company was building a major plant deep inside Ger- many, safe from French air raids. 1n the end, however, the German mili- tary did not so much run out of ammunition as it ran out of food. After the war, other countries adopted Germany’s remarkable new wayof producing nitrates. The Allies immediately recognized the strategic value of the Haber-Bosch process; the Treaty ofVersailles compelled BASF to license an ammonia plant in France. in the United States, the National Defense Aer provided for damming the Tennessee River at Mussel Shoals to gener- ate cheap electricity for synthetic nitrogen plants that could manufacture either fertilizers or munitions, depending on which was in greater demand. In the 1920s German chemists modified the Haber-Bosch process to use methane as the fPtJrlsrnrlr Fm nrnrlnrinrr ommnnia Rat-mean Cnrmanu Ammonia plant construction began again in earnest in the run-up to the Second World War. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) dams pro- vided ideal sites for additional ammonia plants built to manufacture explo- sives. One plant was operating when lapan bombed Pearl Harbor; ten were operating by the time Berlin fell. After the war, governments around the world sought and fostered mar- kets for ammonia from suddenly obsolete munitions factories. Fertilizer use in the TVA region shot up rapidly thanks to abundant supplies of cheap nitrates. American fertilizer production exploded in the 19505 when new natural gas feedstock plants in Texas, louisiana, and Oklahoma were con— nected to pipelines to carry liquid ammonia north to the corn belt. Europe’s bombed-out plants were rebuilt and converted to fertilizer production. Expansion of Russian ammonia production was based on central Asian and Siberian natural gas fields. Global production of ammonia more than dou- bled in the 19605 and doubled again in the 1970s. By 1998 the world’s chem— ical industry produced more than 150 million metric tons of ammonia a year; the Haber-Bosch process supplied more than 99 percent of produc- tion. Natural gas remains the principal feedstock for about 80 percent of global ammonia production. The agricultural output of industrialized countries roughly doubled in the second half of the twentieth century. Much of this newfound produc- tivity came from increasing reliance on manufactured fertilizers. Global use of nitrogen fertilizers tripled between the Second World War and 1960, tripled again by 1970, and then doubled once more by 1980. The ready availability of cheap nitrogen led farmers to abandon traditional crop rota- tions and periodic fallowing in favor of continuous cultivation of row crops. For the period from 1961 to 2000, there is an almost perfect corre- lation between global fertilizer use and global grain production. Soil ptoducrivity became divorced from the condition of the land as . industrialized agrochemistry ramped up crop yields. The shift to large- scale monoculture and increasing reliance on fertilizer segregated animal husbandry from growing crops. Armed with fertilizers, manure was no lrmnnr npprlprl m mains-din mil Fprrilinr increases in cropproduction. uIf the high-yielding dwarf wheat and rice varieties are the catalysts that have ignited the Green Revolution, then chemical fertilizer is the fuel that has powered its forward thrust.” In 1950 high-income countries in the developed world accounted for more than 90 percent of nitrogen fertilizer consumption; by the end of the century, low- incorne developing countries accounted for 66 percent. In developing nations, colonial appropriation of the best land for export crops meant that increasingly intensive cultivation of marginal land was necessary to feed growing populations. New high-yield crop varieties increased wheat and rice yields dramatically in the 19605, but the greater yields required more intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides. Between 1961 and 1984 fertilizer use increased more than tenfold in developing countries. Well‘to-do farmers prospered while many peasants could nor afford to join the revolution. The green revolution simultaneously created a lucrative global market for the chemicals on which modern agriculture depended and practically ensured that a country embarked on this path of dependency could not realistically change course. In individuals, psychologists call such behavior addiction. Nonetheless, green revolution crops now account for more than three- quarters of the rice grown in Asia. Almost half of third-world farmers use green revolution seeds, which doubled the yield per unit of nitrogen fer— tilizer. In combination with an expansion of the area under cultivation, the green revolution increased third-world agricultural output by more than a third by the mid-1970s. Once again, increased agricultural yields did not end hunger because population growrh kept pace—this time growing well beyond what could be maintained by the natural fertility of the soil. Between 1950 and the early [9705 global grain producrion nearly dou’ bled, yet per capita cereal producrion increased by just a third. Gains slowed after the 19705 when per capita grain production fell by more than to percent in Africa. By the early 1980s population growth consumed grain surpluses from expanded agricultural production. In 1980 world grain reserves rimmed m a fnrnr-rlnv snnnlv \With less than it work cnnnlv nf tion. The number of hungry Chinese fell by more than 50 percent, from more than 400 million to under 200 million. Excluding China, the num- ber of hungry people increased by more titan to percent. The effectiveness of the land redistribution of the Chinese Revolution at reducing hunger shows the importance of economic and cultural factors in fighting hunger. However we view Malthusian ideas, population growth remains critical— outside of China, increased population more than compensated for the tremendous growth in agricultural production during the green revolution. Another key reason why the green revolution did not end world hunger is that increased crop yields depended on intensive fertilizer applications that the poorest farmers could not afford. Higher yields can be more prof- itable to farmers who can afford the new methods, but only if crop prices cover increased costs for fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery. In third world countries the price of outlays for fertilizers and pesticides increased faster than green revolution crop yields. If the poor can’t afford to buy food, increased harvests won’t feed them. More ominously, the green revolutions new seeds increased third-world dependence on fertilizers and petroleum. In India agricultural output per ton of fertilizer fell by two-thirds while fertilizer use increased sixfold. In West java a two—thirds jump in outlays for fertilizer and pesticides swal- lowed up profits from the resulting one-quarter increase in crop yields in the 1980s Across Asia fertilizer use grew three to forty times faster than rice yields. Since the 1980s falling Asian crop yields are thought to reflect soil degradation from increasingly intensive irrigation and fertilizer use. Without cheap fertilizers—and the cheap oil used to make them—this productivity can’t be sustained. As oil prices continue climbing this cen— tury, this cycle may stall with disastrous consequences. We burned more than a trillion barrels of oil over the past two decades. That’s eighty million barrels a day—enough to stack to the moon and back two thousand times. Making oil requires a specific series of geologic accidents over inconceiv- able amounts of time. First, organic-rich sediment needs to be buried faster than it can decay. Then the stuff needs to get pushed miles down into the earth’s crust tn be ankFr’l clnwlv Rnried tnn ripen nr mnlml tnn fact and Estimates for when petroleum production will peak range from before 2020 to about 2040. Since such estimates do not include political or envi— ronmental constraints, some experts believe that the peak in world oil pro- duction is already at hand. Indeed, world demand just rose above world supply for the first time. Exactly when we run out will depend on the polit- ical evolution of the Middle East, but regardless of the details oil produc- tion is projected to drop to less than 10 percent of current production by the end of the century. At present, agriculture consumes 30 percent of our oil use. As supplies dwindle, oil and natural gas will become too valuable to use for fertilizer producrion. Petroleum-based industrial agriculture will end sometime later this century. Not surprisingly, agribusiness portrays pesticide and fertilizer intensive agriculture as necessary to feed the world’s poor. Even though almosr a bil« lion people go hungry each day, industrial agriculture may not be the answer. OVEF the past five thousand years population kept pace with the ability to" feed people. Simply increasing food producrion has networked so far, and it won't if population growrh keeps up. The UN Food and Agri- culture Organization reports that farmers already grow enough to provide 3,500 calories a day to every person on the planet. Per capita food produc- tion since the 1960s has increased faster than the world’s population. World hunger persists because of unequal access to food, a social problem of distribution and economics rather than inadequate agricultural capacity. One reason for the exrent of world hunger is that industrialized agricul- ture displaced rural farmers, forcing them to join the urban poor who can- not afford an adequate diet. In many countries, much of the traditional farmland was converted from subsistence farms to plantations growing high-value export crops. Without access to land to grow their own food, the urban poor all too often lack the money to buy enough food even if it is available. The USDA estimates that about half the fertilizer used each year in the United States simply replaces soil nutrients lost by tepsoil erosion. This puts us in the odd position of consuming fossil fuels—geologically one of the rarest and most useful resources ever discovered—tn nrmrirle a ctrbcti. experiments at Rothamsted from 1843 to 1975 showed that plots treated with farmyard manure for more than a hundred years neatly tripled in soil nitrogen content whereas nearly all the nitrogen added in chemical fertil- izers was lost from the soil—either exported in crops or dissolved in runoff. More recently, a fifteen-year study of the productivity of maize and soy- bean agriculture conducted at the Rodale Insritute in Kutztown, Pennsyl- vania showed no significant differences in crop yields where legumes 0r manure were used instead of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The soil carbon content for manured plots and those with a legume rotation respec- tively increased to three to five times that of conventional plots: Organic and conventional cropping systems produced similar profits, but industrial farming depleted soil fertility. The ancient practice of including legumes in crop rotations helped retain soil fertility. Manuring actually increased sorl fertility. , This is really not so mysterious. Most gardeners know that healthy and means healthy plants that, in turn, help maintain healthy soil. I’ve watched this process in our own yard as my wife doused our lot with soil soup brewed in out garage and secondhand coffee grounds liberated from behind our neighborhood coffee shop. I marvel at how we are usmg organic material imported from the tropics, where there are too few nutri— ents in the soil in the first place, to help rebuild the soil on a lot that once had a thick forest soil. Now, five years into this experiment, the soil in our yard has a surface layer of rich organic matter, stays moist long after it rains, and is full of coffee-colored worms. Our caffeinated worms have been busy since we hired a guy with a small bulldozer to rip out the ragged, eighty—two-year-old turf lawn our house came with and reseed the yard with a mix of four different kinds of plants, two grasses and two forbs—one with little white flowers and the other With little red flowers. The flowers are a nice upgrade from our old lawn and we don’t have to water it. Better still, the combination of four plants that grow and bloom at different times keeps out weeds. Our ecoalawn maybe advertised as low maintenance, but we still have to mow it. So we inst cut the grass and leave it to rot where it falls. Within ground—turning our dirt into soil. Recycling organic matter literally put life back in our yard. Adjusted for scale, the same principles could work for farms. About the same time that mechanization transformed conventional ag- riculture, the modern organic farming movement began to coalesce around the ideas of Sir Albert Howard and Edward Faulkner. These two gentlemen with very different backgrounds came to the same conclusion: retaining soil organic matter was the key to sustaining high intensity farm- ing. Howard developed a method to compost at the scale of large agricul- tural plantations, whereas Faulkner devised methods to plant without plowing to preserve a surface layer of organic matter. At the close of the 19305 Howard began to preach the benefits of main- taining soil organic matter as crucial for sustaining agricultural produCtiv— ity. He feared that increasing reliance on mineral fertilizers was replacing soil husbandry and destroying soil health. Based on decades of experience on plantations in India, Howard advocated incorporating large-scale com— posting into industrial agriculture to restore and maintain soil fertility. In Howard’s view, farming should emulate nature, the supreme farmer. Natural systems provide a blueprint for preserving the soil—the first con— dition of any permanent system of agriculture. “Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed veg- etable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another.”ll Constant cycling of organic matter through the soil coupled with weath- ering of the subsoil could sustain soil fertility. Preservation of humus was the key to sustaining agriculture. Howard felt that soil was an ecological system in which microbes pro- vided a living bridge between soil humus and living plants. Maintaining humus was essential for breaking down organic and mineral matter needed to feed plants; soil-dwelling microorganisms that decompose organic mat~ tet lack chlorophyll and draw their energy from soil humus. Soil organic .ir- ‘lllld‘fl i ri-r'I I'l11 l Howard’s methods in the tropics were extremely successful. As word of his increased crop yields and soil-building methods spread, plantations in India. Africa, and Central America began adopting his approach. Howard saw intensive organic farming as how to undo the damage industrial farming inflicted on the world’s soils. He thought that many plant and animal diseases arose from reliance on artificial fertilizers that disrupted the complex biology of native soils. Reestablishiiig organic-rich topsoil through intensive composting would reduce, if not eliminate, the need for pesricides and fertilizers while increasing the health and resilience of crops. After the First World War, Howard saw munitions factories begin man- ufacturing cheap fertilizers advertised as containing everything various crops needed. He worried that adopting fertilizers as standard practice on factory farms would emphasize maximizing profits at the expense of soil health. “The restoration and maintenance of soil fertility has become a universal problem. . . . The slow poisoning of the life of the soil by artifi— cial manures is one of the greatest calamities which has befallen agriculture and mankind.”“ The Second World War derailed adoption of Howard’s ideas. After the war the companies that supplied the world’s armies turned to pumping out fertilizer, this time cheap enough to eclipse soil husbandry. In the middle of the Second World War, Edward Faulkner published Plowman’t Folly in which he argued that plowing—long considered the most basic act of farming—was counterproductive. Enrolled in courses on soil management and farm machinery decades earlier at the University of Kentucky, Faulkner had annoyed his professors by asking what was the point of tearing apart the soil for planting instead of incorporating crops into the organic layer at the ground surface where plants naturally germi- nate. Despite the usual reasons offered for plowing—preparing the seedbed, incorporating crop residues and manure or fertilizers into the sail, and allowing the soil to dry out and warm up in spring—his instructors sheepishly admitted that they knew of no clear scientific reasons for why the first step in the agricultural process was actually necessary After mm. cm W. umrlrincr as s. mnntv agricultural agent in Kentucky and greater tonnage of machinery per man than any other nation. Our agri- cultural population has proceeded to use that machinery to the end of destroying the soil in less time than an...
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