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The commercial production of synthetic nitrogen began in 1913. It is an energy intensive process that is thought to account for about one per cent of the world's annual energy consumption. Its discovery led to huge increases in crop yields, which in turn allowed the human population of the planet to increase from 1.6 billion in the early twentieth century to about six billion today. Haber and Bosch are credited with facilitating this astronomical increase, and without synthetic nitrogen feeding our crops, 500 million tons of the stuff per year, to be precise, it is thought that we would be unable to produce enough food to sustain ourselves. But all this abundant and readily available food comes at a cost: Mother Nature does not like to be cheated.
For example, vast dead zones in our oceans have been attributed to nutrient pollution, or fertilizer runoff from our factory farms. Excess nutrients find their way into our waterways which in turn lead them to the sea. Once there, they cause microscopic algae called phytoplankton to grow which feed a certain bacteria that can reproduce very quickly. The bacteria consume all the oxygen in the water, creating a dead zone in which the abundance of plant life chokes out all other life forms and no fish or marine mammals can survive.
By way of comparison, mixed practice farming - that is farms that raise a multitude of crops and livestock - make productive use of waste products by using them to cultivate a healthy soil and at the end of the day they create very little pollution.
Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch both received Nobel Prizes for their work in discovering how to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, something that is considered by many to be one of the most important inventions of the 20 th century. Indeed, it is thought that billions of people would not exist without it. But Haber's paradoxical biography has a dark twist: A patriotic German Jew, his scientific works also helped Germany to prolong World War I and during the Holocaust he was a key figure in developing Zyklon B poison gas. Here was a man whose life's work brought about the lives and deaths of literally millions of people.
The Sweet Success of Corn
Returning from the mid nineteenth century to today's modern supermarket, we are faced with a mind boggling array of products that bombard us with health claims. All we humans really need to get by is a green grocer, a dairy, perhaps a butcher and a large sack of grain. (Although a bag of sugar and a few coffee beans wouldn't go amiss!)