Friday April 18, 2014

Importance of little known discovery

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As a farm writer I am always eager to paw through the newest edition of Ag Advance magazine when it shows up in the mailbox.

The magazine does a fine job of looking at some of the cutting edge developments in agriculture, whether it be seeder technology, how to best forward market production, or what might be coming down the pipe in terms of seed science.

In the latest edition there was an article entitled ‘Alchemy of Agriculture’. In general terms the piece is really just about science, and how it impacts farming.

There is nothing startlingly new in that. Agriculture uses science every day. The creation of new crop protection products, nutrient cocktails and plant varieties are all based in science creating something new.

What I did find intriguing in the article was reference to a book entitled ‘The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager.

“Hager points out, two-thirds of the world’s food supply is dependent on nitrogen fertilizer. This integral product didn’t exist until two scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, came up with a way to pressurize natural gas to turn hydrogen into liquid nitrogen to make fertilizer – or as Hager describes it, “making bread out of air”,” related the article.

“The Hager-Bosch process emerged 100 years ago, when experts came to believe that current agriculture could not sustain more than four billion people. They posed a challenge to the world’s top scientists to come up with a way to avoid mass starvation. In his book, Hager describes this as the most important scientific discovery ever made.”

In terms of scientific discovery I am hardly the person to be picking which is the most important one made on this planet through the decades.

Science is so much about having access to a toolbox of things discovered and created earlier. The earlier discoveries may not seem significant on their own, but they are essential to the next development.

It is like having a tub of Legos. One small piece does not look particularly impressive, but creative people build amazing structures when they have access to enough pieces.

That all said, in terms of agriculture’s ability to feed a world seemingly incapable of even having a discussion about putting brakes on population growth, the scientific discovery of a process to create nitrogen fertilizer has to be among the most important scientific discoveries to-date.

As much as some people balk at the use of fertilizers as unsustainable in the long run, there does not appear a viable alternative at present in the face of an ever-growing world population.

Certainly food can be grown without fertilizer using organic practices. Farmers did it for years with acres left ideal as summerfallow in order to naturally regenerate.

But can the world afford idle acres with hungry mouths to feed?

Simple answer is no.

And so we need continuous cropping, and that requires fertilizer, and for that we owe Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch much.

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