As the world moved into the 20th century – populations growing and food sources being strained – there was a growing concern about a 100-year-old idea known as the Malthusian catastrope. Thomas Malthus’ theory recognized, basically, that there are a fixed amount of resources available on Earth, and that, sooner or later, the human population is going to exceed a level that those resources can comfortably support.
…misery is the check that represses the
superior power of population and keeps its effects equal to the means
- T.R. Malthus from An Essay on the Principle of Population
One of the big hurdles preventing an increase in food production has to do with nitrogen - an elemental building block in the growth of plants. While nitrogen is plentiful in our atmosphere, it must be “fixed” by first converting it into ammonia and then oxidizing it in order for plants to be able to use it. Back in the day, the only practical way known to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere was to plant legumes (beans, peas, and the like) and let a natural symbiotic bacterial process unique to these plants produce fixed nitrogen in the surrounding soil. To keep their fields enriched, farmers had to alternate crops from year to year between legumes and whatever other more profitable or bountiful plant that they wanted to grow. Farmers were also forced to keep and feed animals to further fertilize the fields. All of these limitations kept a cap on the amount of food that could be grown for human consumption.
Enter Fritz Haber, a German Jewish chemist who perfected a process in 1909 to artificially fix Nitrogen using a whole lot of heat, pressure, and a catalyst. After commercializing his process with the help of Carl Bosch and BASF, the world finally had a plentiful source of fertilizer that was limited only by the availability of energy (fossil fuels) and the gears of industry. Supposedly, two out of five people on Earth would not be able to feed themselves today if it weren’t for Haber’s invention.
So why isn’t Haber hailed as a modern day hero for ushering in an era of unprecedented human growth and productivity? Well, it just so happens that the other popular use for all that ammonia is as a chemical weapon. Haber soon went to work for the German military and oversaw the deployment of poison gas on the battlefield (ironically and horribly paving the way for the gassing of his own relatives in concentration camps during WWII). Despite the wartime uses for the Haber process, many of the factories that synthesized ammonia and nitrogen for gas and bombs during WWII were converted to produce fertilizer after the war. The yield from all these factories enabled the exponential population boom that began shortly thereafter.
I’ve been reading a book by Michael Pollan called The Omnivore’s Dilemma that calls attention to Haber’s significant effect on food production. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of him, given all that he did to change food (a subject I am passionate about), so I wanted to do a little research. Anyways, the book is a really interesting read so far, and I recommend it to anyone that wonders how the modern state of food came about, and what we might want to think about as we continue our mass consumption into the future.