Soy Checkoff: https://www.unitedsoybean.org/
We learned in elementary school that soil, water and sunlight were what plants needed to survive. But for us to produce not just plants, but also food; food for billions of people, many of which live far away from the farm….we need fertilizer. Especially nitrogen. Lots and lots of nitrogen.
Crops need other nutrients as well, but none are more essential than nitrogen. Before the 1900s, that nitrogen mostly came from manure or compost, or the very slow process of microbes that are able to fix small quantities of nitrogen from the air.
And that last point, the fact that nitrogen is all around us in the air, was the basis for what is likely the greatest agricultural technology in history: the Haber-Bosch process, which involved the discovery and commercialization of how to convert atmospheric nitrogen in the air into the building block of modern agriculture: fixed nitrogen.
The Haber-Bosch process, commercialized in the early 1900s is still where we get our nitrogen fertilizer today, for the most part. It’s estimated that without this process, 2-3 billion of the world’s population, about 40% would starve to death. If that doesn’t hit home hard enough, it’s also estimated that about half of the nitrogen in your body derived from a Haber-Bosch facility.
Listen to this short excerpt from Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager, which is the book that much of today’s episode is based on. Hager says: “While the population nearly quadrupled during the 20th century, food production, thanks first to HB, second to improved genetic strains of rice and wheat, increased nearly seven fold. That is the simple math behind today’s era of plenty”