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Unnatural, And Proud Of It

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”.

22 comments on “Unnatural, And Proud Of It”

  1. Paul Dietz says:

    I imagine the biggest environmental concern with nitrogen fertilizer, or at least one of the biggest, is production of nitrous oxide by soil bacteria. N2O has a long residence time in the atmosphere (more than a century) and is a strong greenhouse gas.
    Nitrification (the conversion of ammonia to nitrate, which precedes conversion to nitrous oxide) can be retarded with nitrification inhibitors, like nitrapyrin (2-chloro-6-(trichloromethyl)pyridine). Maybe we need better chemicals in this class?

  2. Peon Chemist says:

    Reminds me of arguing with an old hippie talk radio DJ who had stated that marijuana was okay to use because it was organic, but LSD was bad because it was inorganic. I called him and explained that LSD and the active ingredients in marijuana were both organic as they were carbon compounds. He replied that marijuana was natural. I replied that a drug is a drug and its origin makes no difference as to its “goodness” or “badness”. His reply was that because pot was natural, it was not a drug. I quit at that poing.

  3. RKN says:

    Peon,
    Perhaps what the DJ really meant was that THC is nature-made, whereas LSD-25 is a lab-made only synthetic derivative?
    I agree they’re both drugs under the usual pharmacological definition of the word. “Organic”, on the other hand, seems to be a more malleable term these days.

  4. d_orbital says:

    I’ve had similar arguments with people who think the drug companies and the FDA are in one big conspiracy to bleed the population of it’s money.
    You really can’t get through to some of these people.

  5. As You Lean says:

    I know its a losing battle, but I still get annoyed at the malleability of the term “organic”. When I see produce segregated into “organic” and “non organic” sections at the market I have to resist the urge to demand silicon based carrots.

  6. Wavefunction says:

    We may live in an unnatural world, but the problem with this is that somewhere we seem to have forgotten that we are still ultimately dependent on the natural world. We simply cannot forget this or we are in trouble which is already happening. The question is simply of the relative degree and impact of “unnatural” living on the environment and our own lives. Somewhere, we have forgotten the interdependence of life on the planet which is going to affect us eventually, no matter how much we shield ourselves from “nature”. As you said it is a matter of degree, and there is some degree which constitutes some critical point.
    It’s pretty daft though to compare Haber Boshc with coal.

  7. fwilliam says:

    I guess its all about what individuals consider as “natural”. Aren’t oil and coal the result of natural processes?

  8. Polymer Bound says:

    Peon: I think a better argument against organic things being good is tetrodotoxin. That natural substance will wreck you in a very unhappy way. There are also plenty of carcinogenic, cytotoxic, and hepatotoxic (oh my!) natural products which can creep into our food supply if things aren’t stored properly.
    Something that really annoys me is that a drug can get pulled for showing a fraction of a percent of increased risk of something bad (this isn’t the annoying part), yet our food supply isn’t subjected to clinical trials of similar sophistication. I just don’t have the impression that food producers are scrutinizing artificial food additives like drug candidates. This leaves me wondering how many pre-packaged food products/artificial additives (trans fats anyone?) would have an adverse event profile similar to, or worse than Vioxx or any other withdrawn drug. Because our food isn’t prescription, it’s hard to collect data on long term effects because there is no follow up after I start eating the new “and artificial flavors”.

  9. Mike says:

    I can’t believe they gave the Prize to Ertl! Leave it to the left-leaning Swedes to play politics once again and honor the study of oscillatory reactions on metal surfaces. It’s just what those granola-eating, platinum-hugging types had hoped for. I suppose now the upcoming presidential election will be all about low energy electron diffraction, ultraviolet photoelectron spectroscopy, and scanning tunneling microscopy by those pandering to the Left and jumping on the bandwagon of junk science.

  10. SRC says:

    I’d like to go back in time and smack Rousseau upside the head with a 2X4. His babblings about noble savages in a state of nature has exerted a siren call for simpletons throughout the intervening centuries and directly inspired much current nonsense, such as that Derek cited above (not to mention providing impetus towards socialism).

  11. Monte Davis says:

    I like Dawkins’ “We sold that pass 10,000 years ago.”
    Paul Shepard (The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Man in the Landscape, etc) is eloquent on this point: that agriculture and settlement was the biggest “unnatural” step by far — a very recent one. If people insist on going on about our “true” nature, we’re still genetically and behaviorally more Pleistocene gatherer/hunters than farmers (let alone city dwellers). He can edge towards woo-woo at times, but he’s got his orders of magnitude right.

  12. IC says:

    Interest fact about the impact of the Haber-Bosch process: more than half of the N atoms in our bodies went through the Haber-Bosch process.

  13. Monte Davis says:

    Interesting fact #2, via Vaclav Smil: There are three main global routes of nitrogen fixation, all of roughly the same order of magnitude:
    1) All the Haber-Bosch (and other fertilizer/urea) plants in the world, with their high temperatures and pressures
    2) All the lightning in the world, with even higher temperatures
    3) Nitrogen-fixing bacteria, working away placidly at ambient T and P, using (Smil estimates) 20-30 kg of nitrogenase. In the whole world.

  14. Wavefunction says:

    Curious; what’s the turnover number for these N-fixing bugs, in terms of amount of N fixed say per day?

  15. PeterG says:

    In science, we need to be very careful with language, and the terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ only have clear meaning in their thermodynamic context. When looked at in this way, all human activity falls into the natural category.
    Even for scientists, the anthropocentric view of the world (that the Copernican revolution should have rendered obsolete) remains deeply entrenched in our ways of thinking and expressing ourselves.

  16. Monte Davis says:

    Wavefunction — from Smil’s Cycles of Life:
    “During the early 1990s, synthetic fertilizers contributed annually about 80 Mt [of reactive] N, compared to at least 30 Mt N fixed by leguminous crops. Gaseous emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels [I’d forgotten this part] contain just over 20 Mt N a year.”
    Lightning’s contribution, depending on assumptions about production per stroke, he puts at 20 to 150 Mt/yr, leaning toward the low end.
    To the leguminous crops (actually rhizobia in their root nodules), he adds 110-300 Mt from other terrestrial and marine cyanobacteria, actinobacteria etc, also using nitrogenase.
    “…fixation rates in natural ecosystems vary widely, from just a few kilograms per hectare in arid grasslands to over 100 kg N/ha in Acacia savannas or in stands of such tropical woody legumes as Leucaena.”
    Turns out my memory was overgenerous with the enzyme: “Why is there so little nitrogenase in the biosphere — the total mass of this unique enzyme may be less than a dozen kilograms…?”

  17. Morten says:

    Concerning “organic” foods: Considering how many words there are in the English language (how many words can you think of that means greed?) it is ridiculously poor at times. We use a word that translates best as ecological, meaning that you attempt to emulate the way plants and animals live in an ecosystem with no interference from man. Or that’s the idea anyway. From that definition GMOs shouldn’t be a problem but it has been decided that they are and they can’t get the label.
    I actually thought Rhizobium fixated more nitrogen than Born-Haber. There you go I guess – the seas rule as always tho.

  18. Chris says:

    A few notes:
    1) Our food testing for things that have a million digestible alternatives really isn’t as rigorous as our drug testing for things that have two or three. That’s the influence of the ‘natural=agriculture=safe’ meme, and the fact that agriculture is a hell of a lot more labor intensive, and culturally embedded (my great grandparents worked this farm…) than industrial chemistry. The chemists who produce food additives [wrongly] get a free ride on the backs of the farmers, getting things declared GRAS.
    There’s no way potentially-toxic potatoes, same-family-as-nightshade tomatoes, highly-addictive refined sugar, et cetera would be approved as novel drugs for a carbohydrate deficiency.
    2)While conventional agriculture is unnatural, it is far from untested. If potatoes have been raised for several centuries and been tested for toxicity in different preparations ten trillion times from a thousand different breeds, we may want to respect that while at the same time disrespecting someone who manages to graft on a protein sequence that makes poisonous snakes pest resistant. There is very little question that you could genetically engineer a harmful plant, or get a harmful plant unexpectedly. Here we have additional reason to put these foods up to the same rigorous standards as drugs, with no prior testing of these organisms.
    3) I was under the impression that even the most intensive agricultural methods get the vast majority of their energy input from sunlight. Corn ethanol production is near break-even because all we get back is the alcohol from a mash of the kernels – after the heat of fermentation is wasted, the heat of multiple distillation and purification is wasted, the stalks are allowed to decompose, et cetera. Photosynthesis can be a very inefficient process, but not so inefficient that the paltry amount of fertilizer in the soil is outweighed by the 4-6.5 gigajoules of energy (equivalent to at least 25 gallons of diesel) that pour down on every square meter of farmland in the US in a year. Nitrogen fixing is not carbon fixing.

  19. Shane says:

    I dont agree that human agriculture as it started circa 10 thousand years ago is something fundamentally different from any other kind of behaviour seen on the planet.
    Its just another form of symbiosis, with the crops cultivating the humans as much as the other way around. Before that kind of agriculture humans were actively and conciously managing their environment for much longer time scales (eg Australian Aboriginal fire management to alter their environment).
    And creatures as diverse as ants, fungi and corals “farm” various photosynthetic plants. The only thing novel about humans is our behavioural adaptability that allows us to exploit new food sources and develop novel symbiotic relationships at a much faster rate.

  20. wcw says:

    McArdle is the Gina Arnold of the blogging world. She is substantially always wrong, but unfortunately blessed with a talent for writing and agitprop expansive enough to lure otherwise-reasonable people into reading her pap.
    Please, just ignore her. Otherwise she’ll never go away.

  21. Osaka says:

    Shane: It IS fundamentally different than ants, fungi, coral, etc, in that it does not have short term pay offs and has extremely large risks. Ants won’t have a collapse if their farms fail to meet quota; human civilizations were literally wiped out by insufficient rain at the end of 50 years of prosperity.
    The difference was that humans were capable of keeping the line going enough to physically change the environment to promote their activities, where as almost all other forms of life are detrimental to their environment (which leads to their own limiting behavior). We were able to push off this eventual cost for 10k years. That’s pretty impressive and “unnatural”.
    Keep in mind, by the way, that symbiosis doesn’t exist in nature; almost all things that resemble it are actually mutually parasitic, which isn’t the same thing.

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