The Second Agricultural Revolution

by Dennis Bradford

in intellectual well-being

What is the nature and importance of the second agricultural revolution?

It’s often difficult to understand the importance of recent technologies. The first agricultural recvolution, which occurred some 12,000 years ago, was the domestication of plants and animals.  Its negative effects on human health have only recently become clear.

The second agricultural revolution, which began about a century ago, has had such negative effects on our planet that its negative effects are already clear.  Let me explain.

Scientists sometimes claim that, while carbon provides the quantity for life, nitrogen supplies its quality.  Without nitrogen, there’d be no life. Nature makes amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids from nitrogen; nitrogen is critical to the genetic information that structures life.

Before the discovery of synthetic nitrogen, “the sheer amount of life earth could support–the size of crops and therefore the number of human bodies–was limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria and lightning could fix” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, pp. 42-3). In 1909 Fritz Haber discovered synthetic nitrogen and Carl Bosch commercialized Haber’s idea.  This spawned the second agricultural revolution and, so, may have been the most important invention of the twentieth century.

The process works by putting nitrogen and hydrogen gases under intense heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst.  The heat and pressure come from electricity and the hydrogen is supplied by fossil fuels (such as natural gas or oil or coal).  Hence, the second agricultural revolution shifted the foundation of agriculture from the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel. In other words, the second agricultural revolution liberated farmers from the old biological restraints.

Farms could now be managed like factories that transform chemical fertilizer into outputs of monoculture crops like corn.  This enabled farmers to bring mechanical efficiency and the factory’s economies of scale to agriculture. If “the discovery of agriculture represented the first fall of man from the state of nature, then the discovery of synthetic fertility is surely a second precipitous fall” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 45.).

Why?

It’s an enormously expensive way to produce food, because it takes a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food! This has seriously increased pollution as well as altered our planet’s composition of species and shrunk its biodiversity.  What’s going to happen to cheap corn when fossil fuel energy is no longer as cheap and available as it is today?

All educated people understand that Malthus thought that, because population growth proceeds exponentially while food production increases only arithmetically, human population growth would tend to exceed food production growth.  Is disaster only a few decades ahead?

Jared Diamond notes that both Malthus’s supporters and critics should be able to agree that “population and environmental problems created by non-sustainable resource use will ultimately get solved in one way or another:  if not by pleasant means of our own choice, then by unpleasant and unchosen means, such as the ones that Malthus initially envisioned” (Collapse, p. 313.).  Some countries such as Italy, Japan, and China have dramatically reduced their population growth by voluntary or government-ordered birth control, while others such as modern Rwanda seem to have been a Malthusian worst-case scenario.

“Severe problems of overpopulation, environmental impact, and climate change cannot persist indefinitely . . . ” (Collapse, p. 328).

Furthermore, Diamond argues that we in the First World (developed) countries are most guilty. “Per-capita human impact” is “the average resource consumption and waste production of one person . . . A society’s total impact equals its per-capita impact multiplied by its number of people” (Collapse,  p. 351).  The per-capita human impact is “much higher for modern First World citizens than for modern Third World citizens or for any people in the past” (Collapse, p. 351.).

Our society has enjoyed many blessings and achieved much of value, including scientific understanding.  However, in some ways it’s clear that we are doing worse than our predecessors.

The major kinds of problems we face, such as environmental damage such as deforestation and erosion, climate change, hostility and warfare, and political/cultural factors that favor, for example, war over problem solving, demonstrate that what is most sorely lacking is wisdom.

 

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