Chapter 2 was rough. Nothing makes my eyes glass over quite like economics and/or U.S. farm policy. I’d rather be up to my eyeballs in science, and this is coming from someone who, during my undergraduate years (my only years, by the way), made several tenured biology professors reconsider their positions after hearing my amazing scientific theories.
That said, I appreciated the refresher course on nitrogen-fixing. I totally forgot that nitrogen was important for life. I thought it was all about the carbon. You, too? Let’s review.
All that nitrogen you hear about in the atmosphere? Completely useless. That is, unless you can manage to split all those paired nitrogen atoms, stuck together with the equivalent of Super Glue, and bond them to hydrogen. If you can, this combination magically jump-starts plant growth, which, in turn, modulates how much additional animal life can be supported.
Until fairly recently, the only way nitrogen-fixing happened was by the good graces of soil bacteria on the roots of certain plants. Oh, and lightening, which is strong enough to break those bonds outright. So, the world’s population was limited by how much nitrogen was available to feed it.
But then, German scientist Fritz Haber came up with a way to do it yourself, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1920. Synthetic fertilizer was born, thereby enabling the human population to more than double in a century (high-five, Haber!), despite the fact that his process was also used to create bomb after bomb after bomb (low-five, Haber!).
After World War II, we had all these leftover explosives containing ammonium nitrate. Wait a minute, that’s free nitrogen! Naturally, we turned that shit into fertilizer (the poison gases morphed into pesticides). Yummy!
Anyway, the rest of the chapter had to do with how American farmers with their fertilizer ended up growing so much corn that we ended up with a surplus, driving prices down, which then trapped them in an ongoing vicious cycle of debt and despair. The last paragraph pretty much summed up the whole chapter:
“In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes. In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until either the surplus is consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it. In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can.”
There’s no way we Americans are going to stop eating corn. It’s in everything, and it’s so goddamned delicious. Therefore, there’s no way you’ll be able to convince corn farmers that they should stop growing it. So, I think Pollan is implying that there’s really only one thing left to do. Starve corn. And how do you do that? By taking all that nitrogen fertilizer and putting it back into the bombs it came from.
Then, we’ll just start checking countries off our list. We have a long list, you know. Afghanistan and Iraq would obviously be the first to go. Then, Iran and North Korea. France, just for the hell of it. We’ll keep China around for a little while so we don’t seem like the worst human rights violators of all time. But, not for long. Don’t get smug, Canada, you’re coming up on the next page (unless I get those creme eggs). Italy, even your precious Tuscany can’t save you now. Who am I forgetting?
Wow, did you have any idea that Michael Pollan was such a badass?