Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why? Eating Cheap Fossil Fuels

From time to time I wrestle with the "twin why's" of tree crops:  Why did humankind stop eating the fruits of trees (mostly acorns) that fell all around us in favor of labor intensive annual grain crops? And: Why did the world for the most part ignore the brilliant J.  Russell Smith when he eloquently exhorted us to return to Eden, to a permanent agriculture based on woody perennials?

Tonight I have been thinking about the latter, thanks to Michael Pollan.  Smith wrote the first edition of Tree Crops, a Permanent Agriculture in 1929.  It's not too hard to see why his ideas never gained a wide following.  The Depression struck with a vengeance, and for a decade people were focused on more immediate issues than re-making our system of agriculture (even though the rural farm economy had been depressed decades before what we know as the Great Depression, and it resisted every government plan to bolster it).  The Depression was followed immediately (and was only solved as a direct result of) WWII; again, not the time to introduce sweeping changes in our system of food production. 

After the war nobody wanted to talk about going back in time to a lower input for of agriculture; new chemicals and technologies developed as part of the war effort seemed to hold the promise of virtually limitless yields.

Michael Pollan fleshes this idea out beautifully in The Omnivore's Dilemma, telling the fascinating - yet highly disturbing on multiple levels - story of Fritz Haber.  Haber, born a Jew but later a convert to Christianity, was intrumental in the German WWI war effort, developing a series of chemical weapons including Zyklon B which was later put to use by Hitler in concentration camps (although Haber himself was long dead by that time).  But Haber also did something else: He figured out how to how to split nitrogen atoms from one another and join them with hydrogen atoms in order to make the nitrogen available to plants; he figured out how to "fix" nitrogen. 

It's one of the most important inventions in human history.  Previously the amount of nitrogen available to living things on Earth was limited, and therefore so was the amount of crop production - and by extension the number of humans the Earth could support.  Synthetic fertilizers have saved untold millions of people from starvation, and have made possible the birth and support of billions more.

But. Fixed nitrogen isn't free. It comes at the cost of massive amount of fossil fuels from which the hydrogen is sourced.

But. Corn yields exploded in the 1950's.  The result: Corn prices go down and farmers go broke even as they become more productive.  We then subsidize farmers to grow corn, which further depresses prices, so farmers need to grow more corn in order to make the same amount of money, which further depresses prices.  We then feed that excess corn to animals that should never be fed corn, we then process corn and reassemble in "foods" with sweetness and fat levels much higher than any whole foods our bodies evolved to eat so food companies use our evolutionary preferences for sweetness and fast to cram more calories down our throats (and store them around our guts), and, most ludicrously of all, we distill corn to replace the fossil fuels that were required to grow the stuff in the first place.

Says Pollan:

"The great turning point in the modern history of corn, which in turn marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food (editor: and which, I might interject, relegated the brilliance of Smith to the dust bin of history - but only temporarily), can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over to making chemical fertilizer... The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government's effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes."

It's not hard to see what happened.  What would politicians rather hear and promote?  A school of thought that says our grain-based system of agriculture is suicidal and needs to be replaced by a system based on woody perennials, or the idea of creating jobs! converting war time technologies! to peaceful! purposes with the promise of exponentially increase yields! which in turn means cheap food! 

We now know where that promise has gotten us: Polluted, bankrupt and fat.  Other than that it's worked out pretty well.

Hopefully we'll look back on the 2nd half of the 20th Century and the first decade or two of the 21st and say: Haber's invention bought us some time to feed people who would otherwise have starved. We used that time wisely to developed better, more production and more sustainable methods of growing our feed.  We used that time to rediscover the Eden of tree crops.

So that Smith's brilliance wasn't ignored, just deferred.

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