The Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis doesn’t intrude itself into the public consciousness much, but this year’s Nobel gave it a bit of a push. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that whenever the topic of artificial fertilization comes up, it always kicks up a small dust storm of comment around it.
These vary widely in the reasonableness. Pointing out that artificially fixed nitrogen moved agriculture from (ultimately) a solar-powered base to (largely) a fossil-fuel base is both accurate and a good starting point for further discussion. See the comments to the Nobel post for an example – a person can argue that the Haber process didn’t require fossil fuels per se, or that we use more of them cooking the food than we do growing it (which may be true), or that we use more of them moving the food around (which I think is almost certainly true, and which opens up another set of questions) and so on.
Other good topics for discussion are how close various parts of the world were to a Malthusian food crisis when the ammonia synthesis came along, the other industrial effects of relatively cheap ammonia, the tradeoff of intensive fertilized farming in smaller areas versus more traditional routes in larger ones, etc. But if you’d like an example of an unreasonable comment, I’ll let this one over at Megan McArdle’s Atlantic Monthly blog stand in for a lot of similar fuzzy-mindedness:
"Higher yields due to the petroleum rich Haber-Bosch method also mean faster soil erosion and increased need of rotation etc. Combined with applying this method for inefficient livestock agriculture - it has destroyed NOT saved the rainforest and other ecosystems. Chemical fertilizer in ecology are like statism for the economy. You can force short-term results but nothing more!
At least 800 million people still go hungry.. their way forward into a sustainable future is less livestock agriculture and (more) organic natural farming.
Haber-Bosch is on the same environmental level as coal, oil! Not good, not sustainable, ideologically toxic for survival. We have to get rid of it pronto if we want our children to have "a nice life".
. . .All the social sciences, all the non-biological sciences like chemistry and physics should drop immediately what they are doing and learn more about their mother (and forget as much as possible about their "father" - you know who I mean?)!"
It’s hard to know where to start with this sort of thing. But I think I’ll do what Richard Dawkins did for Prince Charles a few years ago. Dawkins’s “You’re an idiot” style of debate isn’t always productive (for example, I think he does more harm than good to his cause as an atheist), but in this case I think the board across the nose was a good idea. He pointed out that if we’re going to use “naturalness” as a criterion, then agriculture isn’t going to make the cut, either. And that doesn’t mean factory farming and Roundup-Ready seeds; that means agriculture of any kind beyond remembering where the good patch of wild blueberries is and getting there before the bears do:
I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the natural ness of "traditional" or "organic" agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago - too short to measure on the evolutionary timescale.
Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified - admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We've been playing God for centuries!
The large, anonymous crowds in which we now teem began with the agricultural revolution, and without agriculture we could survive in only a tiny fraction of our current numbers. Our high population is an agricultural (and technological and medical) artifact. It is far more unnatural than the population-limiting methods condemned as unnatural by the Pope. Like it or not, we are stuck with agriculture, and agriculture - all agriculture - is unnatural. We sold that pass 10,000 years ago.
Dawkins is correct. We live in an unnatural world, and that goes for a lot of prehistory, too. Our world has been unnatural ever since we started applying our intelligence to it. When humans first started building shelters to get out of the cold and rain, I suppose you could say that this is no more than what an animal does when it digs a den. Killing a mammoth partly in order to use its bones for a house is a step beyond that, but in the same league as what beavers do to birch trees. But clearing land, planting seeds in it, tending and harvesting a crop, and saving some of its seeds to plant again is another order of living. Just because it all happened a long time ago (and because no one yet knew how to write it down) doesn’t make it any more in tune with ancient natural harmonies or whatever. (Try this PDF on for size).
We've been trying to fertilize the soil for thousands of years with whatever was on hand - manure, dead fish, the ashes of the plants that were burnt to make the field. And we've been modifying the genetic profile of our food crops over that same time with awe-inspiring persistence and dedication. (Good thing, too). No, when we move from that to artificial fertilizers and genetically engineered seeds, we’re talking about differences in degree rather than differences in kind. Large differences in degree, true, and worth discussing they are, but not on the basis of either their antiquity or their "naturalness".