by Tom Lee
Damn my fellow bloggers and their prolificity! I wrote the following post last weekend, but I hadn’t found a content-free crack in the posting schedule in which to publish it — and now Mother Jones has put up an article drawing on the same obscure Canadian academic’s work to make a similar point. Well, nuts to that — I’m pressing onward! You should read Paul Roberts’ MJ piece too, though — it’s got a somewhat broader focus, although it inexplicably spends many words talking about vertical farming when they could be better employed waxing poetic about the nitrogen cycle (see below).
It’s been fascinating to watch the reactions to my post about Alice Waters’ proposal for school lunch reform, and not just because I’m interested in the narrow issue of how to feed kids at school. I think it’s fair to say that I have a very different understanding of food and nutrition than many of the people who disagree with me; trying to understand their perspective has been an illuminating exercise.
I’m planning to talk more about this later, but for now I’d like to just highlight one aspect of the divide: namely, the withering contempt that many have for our current food system. A good example of this comes up in Tom Philpott’s response over at Grist, in which he writes:
Lee’s model would continue to funnel federal cash into a globalized food system that relies on cheap labor and mined and synthesized inputs, many of them highly toxic and greenhouse-gas-intensive (see oxide, nitrous). Waters wants federal cash to bolster the foodsheds that surround schools, incentivizing (that one’s for you, wonks) ecological-minded farming.
This list of sins and virtues swings around pretty wildly, and Philpott doesn’t stop to explain what’s wrong with globalization (for example). But he doesn’t have to: it’s clear he means that my school lunch incrementalism is allied with the status quo, and Waters’ proposal is not, and that this alone is enough to recommend her plan.
This is perfectly understandable. People like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have made convincing cases suggesting that our farming, corporate and cultural practices have led our society toward food habits that are unhealthy, unethical, unsustainable and generally unpleasant.
But it’s worth asking what we can realistically do about it. Not “we” in the sense of the individuals reading this blog, but in the sense of our global society. How much can we realistically suppress demand for meat in the developing world? Given the constantly-increasing cost of our spare time, how much of a viable market is there for food that prioritizes quality over convenience? These are the sorts of questions that are often ignored in favor of firebrand condemnations of, say, corn syrup.
But at some point we need to face the limited reach of our idealized solutions. Consider the organic farming movement. By any measure it’s been an enormous success: you can get organically produced items in nearly any supermarket in the country, including the incredibly abysmal Giant by my house. Most people know that if they buy organic food they’re paying a premium for an item that’s been grown without pesticides and in a manner that’s easier on the environment than industrial agriculture.
I buy organic produce all the time, and I understand why people become advocates for it. But organic farming can never supplant modern agricultural techniques. The reason is simple: you just can’t feed enough people that way.
Here I have to lean on the scholarship of Vaclav Smil, a faculty member at the University of Manitoba whose work I was introduced to by my friend Jeff. Among other things, Smil studies the nitrogen cycle, an arrow-laden bit of middle school science that you may dimly remember. A quick refresher:
There are obviously a lot of things that, when in short supply, can constrain the growth of life on this planet, from limited sunlight to too little water. But the most inescapable is nitrogen. It’s an essential component of proteins. It’s also the most common element in the air we breath, but getting it into a form that’s usable by living things is tricky — it takes a lot of energy to break apart nitrogen gas and turn it into fertilizer (that high-energy transition is why you can make bombs out of the stuff). Soil bacteria are up to the task; so are leguminous plants, which harness that bacteria more efficiently than others. But there’s still a limit on how quickly nitrogen can be pulled from the atmosphere, and other bacteria are always unhelpfully converting usable nitrogen compounds back into useless gas.
Fortunately, humanity has figured out a way around this limit: the Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia, which uses natural gas and an iron oxide catalyst to pull nitrogen from the air and, eventually, into our bellies, albeit at considerable energetic cost — it’s estimated that 1% of global energy output goes toward the production of fertilizer through this method. By Smil’s count, about 40% of the protein we now grow comes from artificial synthesis. Our bodies are about 16% protein; that means that about 6% of you and of me comes courtesy of a natural gas field somewhere.
(Aside: Kriston, being a professional art guy, is fond of The Futurist Cookbook, which contains avant garde recipes from 1930s Italy’s premiere proto-fascists — things like chicken with ball bearings. But Haber-Bosch makes Marinetti look like a kid rolling out Play-Doh pasta in a Fisher Price kitchen. Science has effectively created a recipe for taking the gaseous fossil remains of mysterious ancient organisms and, through the artful application of crushing heat and rust, turning them into whatever food we’d care to eat. I find this pretty amazing, although I’ll understand if others are less enthusiastic about the idea. )
At any rate, Smil has tallied up all of the natural sources of nitrogen, and it turns out that they fall far short of providing enough protein to feed the 6.7 billion people estimated to be on the planet — the key paper in which he does this is unfortunately only available through pay services, but he’s got a review paper here (PDF). There’s no getting around this: nature can only cycle nitrogen so quickly. There’s no secret source of it waiting to be mined. If we limit ourselves to growing food naturally, we’re going to have to figure out how to break some very bad news to about 2 billion people.
None of this invalidates the idea of organic farming; it just means that organic food will remain a market niche rather than an agricultural revolution. And so it is with many of the food reform efforts currently underway. The system we’ve developed to feed ourselves is highly sophisticated and amazingly efficient. It should surprise no one that a system so large carries with it some unpleasant externalities. The appropriate response is to address those problems, not to dream of blowing the whole thing up in favor of alternatives that haven’t been carefully considered.