I picked up the New York Times this morning and what do I see? A picture of a hog farm under the article title “Cost and Shortages Threaten Farmers’ Crucial Tool: Fertilizer" (by Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin). Well, I wanted food to come to the forefront of U.S. debate and I suppose I got it. It was completely fascinating. educational, and scary to read. I found myself on the subway, digging around in my bag for a pen so I could circle passages. Here is what I highlighted:
Fertilizer is plant food, a combination of nutrients added to soil to help plants grow. The three most important are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The latter two have long been available. But nitrogen in a form that plants can absorb is scarce, and the lack of it led to low crop yields for centuries.
That limitation ended in the early 20th century with the invention of a procedure, now primarily fueled by natural gas, that draws chemically inert nitrogen from the air and converts it into a usable form.
The next paragraph says that fertilizer accounts for how the population was able to jump from 1.7 billion in 1900 to 6.7 billion today.
Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, calculates that without nitrogen fertilizer, there would be insufficient food for 40 percent of the world’s population, at least based on today’s diets.
To use a Scott Westerfeld-ism, that’s a little “nervous-making”, yes? The article goes on to discuss the environmental implications of farmers using hog manure for fertilizer; the run-off nitrogen is encouraging algae growth in the water and has created more than 400 “dead zones” from the coast of China to the Chesapeake Bay.
This month, a United Nations panel called for changes in agricultural practices to make them less damaging. The panel recommended techniques that offer some of the same benefits as chemical fertilizer, like increased crop rotation with legumes that naturally add more nitrogen to the soil.
But others say those approaches, while helpful, will not be enough to meet the world’s rapidly rising demand for food and biofuel.
The article ends with a very apocolyptic quote from the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug: “Without chemical fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”
It's too bad that this is what it takes for to get food on the front page of the paper, versus the Dining section where anything food-related is usually relegated.
Eat, drink, and try not to panic.