Nutrients and Fertilizer

What I would do – I might as well start at
the beginning, and I’ll give you basically a fertilizer primer. I tell you
why it’s important, how the importance differs around the world because it’s
not the same pattern and what we can do to make the efficiency of its use much
better than it is right now. Why it’s important is very simple; the
biochemistry is very complex, but you don’t have to know that. All you have to
know is this: for us to grow, we have to produce all these proteins. Your
eyelashes, your nails, your muscles, you name it,
it’s protein, except for the bones. So you need protein. That protein is built up of
amino acids. These amino acids contain – there is a bunch of them – but on the
average they contain about 16 percent of nitrogen. So it’s very simple. To get the
eyelashes, muscles, nails, you need proteins. To make the proteins, you need
amino acids. Amino acids cannot be synthesized without nitrogen and the
important point we cannot synthesize them. We can do all sorts of things in
our body, but one of the things which we cannot do is synthesize these amino
acids. We have to consume them compete and ready made, either by eating plants
or eating animals which have eaten plants. And to get at nitrogen into those
plants, they’ve got to take it from soil. So that’s the sequence. Now in traditional
agriculture, there were very few ways how to get at nitrogen from that soil to the
plants. It rained, rain always contains a little bit of nitrogen from nitrate or
ammonia in the air, but that’s not enough at all. You could go and you could
recycle the organic stuff, the crop residues, straw, roots, and of course, you
can recycle manures or human waste and traditional agricultures, especially in Asia
and in Western Europe, are doing it quite a bit, but that you can clearly see
limits the amount of nitrogen you can put in because you can recycle only as
much as it’s available. If I grow in traditional agriculture two tonnes of
grain per hectare, I will have about three tonnes of residues stored. So the
maximum I can put in is three tonnes of residue and that residue stored is
mostly carbon and hydrogen and oxygen, very little nitrogen. So maybe like half
a percent, less than one percent nitrogen. So even if I
recycle all that stuff, which usually I couldn’t because I should take some of
it to feed my animals or you know to make all sorts of little baskets or
whatever in traditional agriculture, so it’s always very limited. The same is
manure – I can have only as much manure as I have animals. So it’s always limited how
much you can recycle. One way out of this is to mix the crops and start growing
leguminous crops because they are the only creatures in this world which are
associated with bacteria in the root system and these bacteria are able to
take the nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into ammonia and feed those crops. So this is what we call the nitrogen fixing crops and every
traditional agriculture used to do it. Chinese used to plant soy beans and
beans, Indians of lentils and peas and beans, Western Europe, peas and beans
again, and of course, the North American Indians mixing corn together with
beans. But again, it limits you because as long as you have that leguminous crop,
which is by nature low yielding and which people may not be so eager to eat
and which doesn’t make good bread or no bread at all – you know there is
no bean or pea bread – you are limiting the cultivation of rice or wheat, things which
people want to eat. So no matter which you slice it, traditional agriculture has
always limited amount of nitrogen either through recycling or through probing
leguminous crops. So this is why it was such a fundamental breakthrough
when at the end of the 19th century people said you know we’ve got to come up
with a solution, we’ve got to bring an inorganic fertilizer. And we’ve done it
with potassium because you just go and dig up potash. And we’ve done it with
phosphates, you just dig up phosphates and treat them with acid to make them more
available, but we did have no way how to do it with nitrogen. Although we are living
in this ocean of nitrogen – 80% of the atmosphere is nitrogen – is in its form
which is not breakable, it’s a very strong three, triple bond, which holds
these two atoms of nitrogen together, so we had to come up with a method to break
it down, and once it’s broken down, that nitrogen and combined with hydrogen and
create ammonia. And finally Fritz Haber succeeded, great German chemist,
1909, and he got the Nobel Prize for chemistry for this and Carl Bosch his
colleague at the bus company in Germany, he led the project to turn this from
scientific process into big industrial production. One of the most
rapid industrial developments in the world. By 1913 – 1909 to 1913 – this process
was ready to go. So this is the great mark in the history of mankind that,
since 1913, we have been able to take the nitrogen from the air, take it down,
combine with hydrogen and make ammonia. Once you have ammonia, you can make other
fertilizer out of it, you know, ammonium nitrate or urea and now mostly
it’s urea because it’s a practical fertilizer, it’s a solid so it’s easily
spread on fields, easily available. So then it took quite a few decades actually for the
production to ramp up, you know First World War, the economic crisis, so the
fertilizers took only after the Second World War and they, as Norman Borlaug, who got
the Nobel Prize for Peace for this, basically fought the Green Revolution as
he said so aptly – it was the chemical fertilizers which provided a fuel for
fueling the Green Revolution because you could have all these crops which perform
very marvelously and which can you know yield much more, but because they yield
much more they will store more protein in their grain, they will need nitrogen
to make those amino acids, to make the protein. So without large application of
fertilizer, no green revolution, no increase in yields and no possibility to
have as many billions of people as we have now. This is why I keep concluding
and telling people to their surprise that this is the most important
invention of 20th century or of all times because you know everything starts
in people, as far as they are concerned, and you could not have that many people
without having that much food, without having that much fertilizer.

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