Nature and human activity are inextricably intertwined — in the Anthropocene

Nothing affects global food security as much as synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Nothing underlines the inadequacy of organic farming for meeting current food and feed demand while sparing forests as much as the global accounts on the nitrogen cycle that is an essential part of all life on the planet.

These facts of life are captured succinctly by an image available at The Economist website this week in their essay on the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene: A man-made world | The Economist: “May 26th 2011 | from the print edition”

Science is recognising humans as a geological force to be reckoned with…
The [Nitrogen] fix is in
No Dickensian insights are necessary to appreciate the scale of human intervention in the nitrogen cycle. One crucial part of this cycle—the fixing of pure nitrogen from the atmosphere into useful nitrogen-containing chemicals—depends more or less entirely on living things (lightning helps a bit). And the living things doing most of that work are now people (see chart). By adding industrial clout to the efforts of the microbes that used to do the job single-handed, humans have increased the annual amount of nitrogen fixed on land by more than 150%. Some of this is accidental. Burning fossil fuels tends to oxidise nitrogen at the same time. The majority is done on purpose, mostly to make fertilisers. This has a variety of unwholesome consequences, most importantly the increasing number of coastal “dead zones” caused by algal blooms feeding on fertiliser-rich run-off waters.
Industrial nitrogen’s greatest environmental impact, though, is to increase the number of people. Although nitrogen fixation is not just a gift of life—it has been estimated that 100m people were killed by explosives made with industrially fixed nitrogen in the 20th century’s wars—its net effect has been to allow a huge growth in population. About 40% of the nitrogen in the protein that humans eat today got into that food by way of artificial fertiliser. There would be nowhere near as many people doing all sorts of other things to the planet if humans had not sped the nitrogen cycle up.
It is also worth noting that unlike many of humanity’s other effects on the planet, the remaking of the nitrogen cycle was deliberate. In the late 19th century scientists diagnosed a shortage of nitrogen as a planet-wide problem. Knowing that natural processes would not improve the supply, they invented an artificial one, the Haber process, that could make up the difference. It was, says Mark Sutton of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Edinburgh, the first serious human attempt at geoengineering the planet to bring about a desired goal. The scale of its success outstripped the imaginings of its instigators. So did the scale of its unintended consequences.
For many of those promoting the idea of the Anthropocene, further geoengineering may now be in order, this time on the carbon front. Left to themselves, carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere are expected to remain high for 1,000 years—more, if emissions continue to go up through this century. It is increasingly common to hear climate scientists arguing that this means things should not be left to themselves—that the goal of the 21st century should be not just to stop the amount of carbon in the atmosphere increasing, but to start actively decreasing it. This might be done in part by growing forests (see article) and enriching soils, but it might also need more high-tech interventions, such as burning newly grown plant matter in power stations and pumping the resulting carbon dioxide into aquifers below the surface, or scrubbing the air with newly contrived chemical-engineering plants, or intervening in ocean chemistry in ways that would increase the sea’s appetite for the air’s carbon….continues at the Economist


  1. Let me get this straight…
    Add artificial nitrogen made via fossil fuels.
    Boost yields for some time while degrading soil quality due to new ability to more intensively use the same plots of land sans biologically sensible rotation schedules.
    Outsource the environmental consequences such as water pollution and greenhouse gas build-up.
    Call it a success.
    Denounce those looking ahead a bit on alternatives to this program as being out of touch with reality and not caring about the need to feed the world.
    Thanks, think I got it.

  2. That’s your fantasy that perhaps enables you to feel happy about Oxfam.
    Now start explaining why you suppose these thin[g]s, and open up for critical comment.
    Start one factoid at a time.

  3. But definitely DO NOT adopt these tactics Jason
    Greenpeace Violators of Bt Eggplant Trial to be Prosecuted for Malicious Mischief
    – SEARCA BIC Press Release, June 3, 2011
    Greenpeace members led by Daniel Ocampo who trespassed and destroyed the experimental site of the fruit and shoot borer resistant (FSBR) Bt eggplant in the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) last February 17, 2011 are to be prosecuted for malicious mischief by the Provincial Prosecution Office of Laguna Province. Among those to be charged include Indian nationals Shavani Shah and Ali Abbas of Greenpeace. Both joined Ocampo and his team in vandalizing the legitimate experiment.
    (see more at link)

  4. Um, I’m pretty much in-between you guys on this subject, apparently. I think synthetic N is an important part of boosting yields, but I also think we need to use them very carefully and sparingly to avoid unintended consequences like high N runoff. We need to figure out how to use BOTH N and rotations to produce high yields while providing habitat to cultivate ecosystem services and other benefits including building up soil organic matter. I don’t think it’s useful to use the sarcastic tone that either of you are taking – it won’t get us any nearer a balanced approach to ag 🙁

  5. From what Jason’s posted in the comments on Biofortified, I don’t see him taking part in destruction of research, even if it was something he disagreed with. We all need to be careful in what we say people will do and all that. It’s not fair to presume that someone would consider doing something without evidence. I’ve gotten enough baseless accusations myself to know that it’s not fun to be the subject of such things.

  6. Neither do I. The example I posted shows that robust scrutiny of arguments in debate is nowhere near the response that some participants to the issue bring to bear.

  7. Typically, those without expertise in climatology are the staunchest defenders of global warming. Which has now been re-branded as ‘climate disruption’ due to the failure of climatologists to predict any thing at all. For instance, Kevin Trenberth of crimatology fame, has admitted that there is no statistically significant warming trend over the last two decades. And if there were, it would signal a recovery from the Little Ice Age, and still be less warm than during the Medieval Optimum.
    Discussing notions of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) in this forum is off-topic, so I won’t address the issue unless someone brings it up.

  8. There is no such thing as ‘synthetic’ nitrogen. It’s an element on the periodic table. You can’t make it. Well, OK, you can make some N if you have a particle collider.

  9. “It’s not fair to presume that someone would consider doing something without evidence.”
    Your evidence, and their evidence, are poles apart. What you consider to be reasonable ground for a field trial, they will destroy because of Korporations, AmeriKKKa, globalization, feminist deconstruction of the post-modern reductionist science, etc.

  10. I think what Jason is saying is shorthand for synthetically produced fertiliser such as ammonia or nitrate. That’s what the common meaning of synthetic is in this context.

  11. My comment has nothing to do with Oxfam, but with the article in the Economist. It is simply a typical, tiring, rehash of the old arguments that say we must carry on in the same way we have for the past few decades because we really have no choice–we have come this far, are in deep in overshoot, and so must continue digging deeper. Those who suggest otherwise are fools.
    That’s the basic message, and it is couched in many facts, but these facts are a subset of the array of facts that can be used to get a perspective on the situation. When I look at the broader subset of facts I come to a different perspective.
    I don’t pretend to have the whole picture, but there are some massive elephants in the room that few are paying attention to. So while I see Economist articles speaking of the fools who don’t appreciate the nitrogen cycle, I am reminded of how many idiotic articles I read in the Economist over the years regarding: 1. The housing market, 2. The future price and availability of oil, 3. The effects of de-regulation of the financial system on the stability of said system….etc.
    So, I don’t consider myself a fool at all, and have frequently been able to see complete failures and wrong directions well ahead of the experts.
    Just to give an example in the article above, carbon sequestration in below ground aquifers will not happen on any significant scale. There’s a prediction for you. I said the same thing about the hydrogen economy and will stand by that one. These are not difficult assessments to make, by the way, just believe in thermodynamics and follow some simple math.
    So, the question we should be asking ourselves is: “Why do we keep avoiding the real problems and going down useless paths?”
    There are many ways to answer this, but to begin I would suggest the following answer: “We avoid the real problems because there are no solutions.”
    When a problem has no solution people will invent all sorts of crazy work arounds that have no chance of success. It is all psychological work instead of real, problem solving work.
    What we should be doing is appreciating that we are between a rock and a hard place and redefine what our purpose is and what our goals are. If we can do that then the old, unsolvable problems may go away. We would then have a new set of problems that we can constructively do something about.

  12. Just to be clear, I am not completely against synthetic N. Some friends of mine use it all the time when farming and I don’t get on their case about it 🙂
    I do believe it is mis and over used, like you describe. I also believe it is beginning to become too costly to produce, and that it will become less available over time as fossil fuels get more expensive.
    Therefore, a development program that emphasizes the use of synthetic N in a region (e.g., Africa) without the long-term capacity to produce it would be a great mis-allocation of resources.
    There are ways to continue to make synthetic N via hydro-power and wind electricity. However, I see society have less energy overall, and so many competing uses will be making demands on this renewable energy supply, and so I’d expect much less synthetic N.
    Therefore, as much as possible we should be learning how to produce soil N using biological processes. I am sure the GMO research is on-going about boosting this and that would make for some interesting articles here.

  13. Fertlisers use about 3% of hydrocarbon energy. We won’t run short of inputs for hundreds of years. If legumes are better– great. The N-fixing bacteria you mention are called Rhizobium.

  14. Agriculture is only a few percent of US GDP. Ergo, even if climate change reduces corn yields by 50% the GDP impact is minimal.
    My point is that your point is not relevant. These statistics get thrown around out of context to dismiss one claim and bolster another.
    Fossil fuels will be around for thousands, not just hundreds of years. The issue is not just the duration of supply, but the flow rate. In our current economic paradigm we have to watch the price curve and what happens in the economic-financial system if supply is not as forthcoming as needed for demand growth. The resulting volatility kills the system.
    What societies need during periods of volatility are robust and resilient systems. Such systems reduce the chance for catastrophic failure when shocked. Knowing how to get your N in place is an example of being resilient.
    Economists tend to falsely model energy as just one of many endogenous inputs instead of treating it as a non-substitutable factor of production. The results are as absurd as the agriculture and GDP analogy given above.
    We are actually awash in super abundant, still cheap, fossil energy. However, we are now running into the limits of our ability to produce fossil energy cheap enough to match the current and future demands implied by our credit/debt system. This is one example of what I am getting at when I say that we are not accepting the fact that we have an unsolvable problem.

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