April 30, 2008

Limiting Factors

There is an interesting piece in the NYT that does a good job of explaining why I'm reluctant to endorse a call for the next agricultural revolution to once again be dependent upon chemical fertilizer usage.  To do so is to paint ourselves into the proverbial corner:
Then the widespread use of inexpensive chemical fertilizer, coupled with market reforms, helped power an agricultural explosion here that had already occurred in other parts of the world. Yields of rice and corn rose, and diets grew richer.

Now those gains are threatened in many countries by spot shortages and soaring prices for fertilizer, the most essential ingredient of modern agriculture.

Some kinds of fertilizer have nearly tripled in price in the last year, keeping farmers from buying all they need. That is one of many factors contributing to a rise in food prices that, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program, threatens to push tens of millions of poor people into malnutrition.

The article glosses over a few important details but it does a good job of explaining how modern, conventional farming is built upon the clay feet of chemical petroleum based nitrogen.  Limiting factors are inherent in agriculture and the ability to manipulate those factors by stepping outside of natural cycles and introducing synthetic options has always been a short term gain, even if it is not recognized as such.  So, we need solutions more creative than calls to redouble our dependence upon already crumbling structures.  The UN has already recognized this in their state of global agriculture report released earlier this month:

Business as usual is no longer an option,” the report stresses. The first conclusion: while agricultural science and technology has made it possible to greatly increase productivity in the last 50 years, the sharing of benefits has been far from equitable. Furthermore, progress has been achieved in many cases at a high social and environmental cost. The report’s authors therefore recommend that agricultural science place greater emphasis on safeguarding natural resources and on “agroecological” practices. These include using natural fertilizers and traditional seeds, intensifying natural processes and reducing the distance between agricultural production and the consumer

That sounds like good, progressive thinking.  Unfortunately, it looks like we need more creative thinkers on the issue than we currently have.  The NYT piece ends with this depressing quote from Norman Borlaug:

"This is a basic problem, to feed 6.6 billion people,” said Norman Borlaug, an American scientist who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in spreading intensive agricultural practices to poor countries. “Without chemical fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”

Depressing because Borlaug, the man who may have saved more lives than anyone in history, is unable now, in the face of a starkly different situation than the one he faced earlier in the century, to think beyond the old models of development.  We need some new Borlaugs.

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