2018/10/02: Chile had invaded Peru in 1881 for a seemingly unlikely prize: nitrogen fertilizer. Twenty years earlier, the great European powers and the United States had come to the brink of global war over three tiny islands off the coast of Peru covered in mountains of nitrogen-rich guano. Why would anyone come to blows over piles of bird crap? Because nitrogen gave these countries the power to feed their growing populations. Peruvian guano was, as one historian put it, “worth more than all the gold shipped back to Europe in the Spanish treasure galleons.”
Nitrogen is everywhere. It makes up 80 percent of the air you’re breathing. On its own, it has no real value. But if it’s combined into a molecule with another element, like hydrogen or oxygen, it becomes something that can react with other chemicals. In this “fixed” state, plants can use it to build proteins. Our bodies use those proteins, in turn, to build muscles, bones, DNA, and babies.
But back in the 19th century, fixed nitrogen was limited. In the early 1800s, the English scholar Thomas Malthus warned of famine as population growth began to overtake farm production. Then settlers discovered the guano islands and nitrate mines of South America, and fertilizer-laden clipper ships streamed around Cape Horn back to Europe, giving farmers bumper crops and feeding a baby boom.
Britain’s population quadrupled over the next 100 years. Then in 1908, as South American nitrogen was beginning to run low, the chemist Fritz Haber discovered a way to take the inert nitrogen in air and turn it into the reactive forms plants and animals use. “Haber opened the faucet for nitrogen to flow from the air to the living world,” wrote geographer Ruth DeFries. Instead of waning, populations continued to boom.
This breakthrough solution created a crisis as large as the one it solved. Since Haber’s discovery, humans have nearly doubled Earth’s natural flow of fixed nitrogen, overwhelming the capacity of ecosystems to remove it. The resulting buildup is poisoning the planet’s waterways, creating a crisis some consider even more threatening than the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Now, for the first time in over a hundred years, there’s a potential solution. A pack of startups is racing to market with a means of fixing nitrogen without polluting the Earth. One of them, Pivot Bio, just garnered a $70 million vote of confidence in a funding round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the coalition of big-name billionaires — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson — hoping to power climate change-beating innovation.
Pivot Bio CEO Karsten Temme and senior scientist Sarah Bloch in a grow room where bright lights make sunglasses necessary. Nathanael Johnson
“Pivot Bio is addressing one of the largest sources of GHGs on the planet,” said Carmichael Roberts, a Breakthrough investor, in a press release. He noted that the Berkeley, California-based biotech might earn a fortune by “disrupting the $200 billion fertilizer market.”
Next year, Pivot plans to start getting farmers nitrogen-fixing bacteria — which efficiently delivers fertilizer to crops, no fossil fuels required. Farmers will spritz seeds with a liquid probiotic as they bury them in the ground. Another startup, Azotic Technologies based in England, is racing to bring a different bacterium to market around the same time. Intrinsyx Bio — a spin-off from a company that supplies NASA with bacteria and other critters for experiments — plans to put yet another bacterium on the market in 2020. And at least one other, the Bayer-backed Joyn Bio, is just ramping up. If any of them is able to provide a viable alternative to the international fertilizer industry, it could be the most significant environmental breakthrough since Haber figured out a way to synthetically release nitrogen from its natural bonds.
2018/01/22: There is a long-term battle being fought between proponents of food democracy and food control. An Uberisation of the food system is occurring, in which the controllers of the software capture the majority of the value.
The food system is dependent on self-exploitation by its workers. It’s not a good system.
Something like 75% of the value in the food sector is captured beyond the farm gate.
Government benefits for the low waged working in the food processing and retail sector are an implicit subsidy to the process/retail industry.
We need shorter food chains.
France does a better job than the UK of controlling land concentration and retaining small-scale agriculture. But is it at the expense of accepting a patriarchal gerontocracy?
When faced with a 50-50 choice between investing in labour or investing in machinery, farm managers usually opt for machinery.
Machinery is generally high cost and large scale (= labour saving). The result is that the farm landscape is fitted to the machinery, rather than fitting the machinery to the farm landscape.
Much of the time, machinery sits in the shed. It can do the job it’s designed to do much more quickly and cheaply than human labourers. But without human labourers, much additional environmental work that could be done on the farm – hedging, ditching, woodland management etc. – doesn’t get done.
Nobody wants to work on farms any more.
Lots of people want to work on farms, but the opportunities are limited.
Working on farms is now a lonely occupation – and more dangerous, because of the human lack.
We need to grow more vegetables in the UK.
The UK government’s recent agricultural policy emphasised the need to ‘Grow more, sell more and export more’. Actually we should be trying to grow better, sell better and eat better.
New entrants to farming somehow need access to land. Or do they?
Dispersed grazing provides opportunities for new entrants.
Secure agricultural tenancy rights would take the heat out of the battle to secure access to land.
But there would be a hot battle to gain secure agricultural tenancy rights.
Global food production increased with over 50% between 1986 and 2009. Meanwhile the trade in food for direct human consumption has incr...
Per la serie "diamo spazio a chi non merita attenzioni", oggi vi propongo un post di risposta ad un articolo pubblicato da un sito di cui fino mezz'ora fa nemmeno sapevo l'esistenza: The Vision. Pubblicato in data 18 Settembre 2017, l' articolo circa l'assenza di etica nell'essere vegani ha destato molto interesse fra i non
La maggior parte delle quasi due milioni di vacche da latte italiane sono allevate a "pascolo zero", ovvero in sistemi intensivi che le confinano in stalla per tutta la vita. Separate dal proprio vitello subito dopo il parto, vivono per pochissimi anni (rispetto alla loro aspettativa di vita) producendo quantità innaturali di latte. Queste condizioni
Average land use area needed to produce one unit of protein by food type, measured in metres squared (m194178) per gram of protein over a crop's annual cycle or the average animal's lifetime. Average values are based on a meta-analysis of studies across 742 agricultural systems and over 90 unique foods.
What we need is a new food system that keeps people fed and ecosystems healthy.
The debate heats up over carrageenan, the additive derived from seaweed.
For many angry rural voters, Donald Trump is fueling a fire that started with the farm crisis of the 1980s.
It's hard to believe, but seed planting hasn't changed much in the last century. But as John Deere and Monsanto move big into precision farming, high-tech solutions may be shaking all that up.
Environmental regulators in the US have proposed the creation of pesticide-free zones on a temporary basis to protect commercial honeybees, which continue to suffer from alarming mass die-offs.
The Sustainable Food Trust, founded by Patrick Holden, is a global voice for sustainable food systems, aiming to empower communities with sustainable ideas, and push for government policy changes.