I promise to get back to some light, fun stuff in coming posts. This topic is foundational so bear with me. It's the farming component of climate change, food security, and more. To make it fun(er), I'll share a couple video clips that make things easy to digest.
This is a surprising (to me) phenomena that has evolved over time, enabling population growth and climate change, and to which we are more painfully addicted than fossil fuels: fertilizer.
Disclosure: I am not a soils scientist. I have worked with soil scientists and listened intently to those who know a lot, but I am not an authority on the subject. My goal here is to share my synthesis of what I've heard, read and viewed. Most of this is a gross over-simplification of course. I'm probably pushing my luck with the level of geeking out I'm doing here as it is.
Before we talk about fertilizer, let's define a problem we all know about.
Desertification is the loss of a functioning topsoil layer. It's usually associated with arid places where modest human mistakes can have rapid impact.
If you're in North America, like me, where we have a lot of land per capita and (historically) well-distributed precipitation, the desertification issues that plague other parts of the world seem distant. But, the same mechanisms are at play here and will bring the issue close to home much faster than we think.
Climate change is one of the mechanisms (not the only one) that accelerates desertification. But desertification also accelerates climate change, much like the relationship between climate change and the reflection of solar energy by glaciers.
Topsoil is a whole world of its own. Massive amounts of life are present in this layer that ranges from a few inches to a few feet deep. Fungi, bacteria, microbes, bugs, worms, roots and other stuff, living in a bed of organic matter (dead stuff) and dirt. It's a little factory, converting air, water, and dirt into life. A gazillion complex processes at play, just like in our bodies.
What is fertilizer?
There are three primary components to fertilizer: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). The most important of these is nitrogen, or "N" on the periodic table. Plants need nitrogen, in part, to produce chlorophyll, the solar panel of plants that powers photosynthesis and, generally, life on earth. Fertilizer not only gets nitrogen into the ground, it provides it to plants on a silver platter, ready for them gobble up.
Our little topsoil factory has a machine in it that provides critical nitrogen (and tons of other stuff) to plants. It involves bacteria and some fungi and is explained brilliantly in a fun video that I'll introduce a minute. Fertilizer is a shortcut... a more direct delivery of nutrients to plants, that bypasses the workers beavering away in healthy topsoil. The unemployed don't hang around, and the soil "dies." With our little factory shut down, we have to keep running the big one above ground, and pouring NPK (and other stuff) into the ground.
Maybe, at first, we thought this would support and accelerate the natural stuff happening underground. But fertilizer replaced it all instead.
The fun video I promised is The Nitrogen Cycle, by Jimi (Sol) Eisenstein. It does a fantastic job of illustrating this. Please check it out.
When and why did this start?
Like most natural processes, our little topsoil factory takes its time to meet the needs of a plant that lives a normal plant life. This was fine and dandy until there were too many people who did not grow their own food.
In the early 1800's we started to worry about how we were going to feed ourselves, particularly the growing population in Britain. We learned about the key importance of nitrogen, but we didn't know how to create lots of it until a German discovery in 1909, just 113 years ago. The Haber-Bosch process was developed, and by 1920 had kicked-off industrial production of ammonia (NH3) and today's fertilizer industry. In evolutionary terms, that's like two seconds ago. My grandparents were alive then.
When fertilizer was first produced, it was used to kill people in the form of WWI bombs. Since then, it has produced incredible amounts of food (albeit with decreasing nutritional values) for a population growing exponentially. The problem is that it's not "sustainable," which means that it is consuming more than it is producing. This is like spending more than you earn until, eventually, you're bankrupt.
In this case, the balance in our bank account is the amount of topsoil we have.
When we put the workers in the soil out of business, they leave, and what remains is the dirt. Because we don't have the biodiversity and natural processes happening that add organic matter (formerly living stuff) to the soil, it's composition changes dramatically. It holds less air, can't absorb water, and is subject to compaction and erosion by wind and water. The layer of healthy topsoil becomes thinner and depleted. But fertilizer keeps flowing basic nutrients into the roots that continue to penetrate after the soil has been tilled, so all is good. For now.
Since 1960, most references I find peg the loss of topsoil at about 25%, globally, and accelerating. Estimates of when we will be bankrupt range from 2050 to 2070. This is all caused by the intensive way we destruct topsoil with machines and fertilizer.
Can't we just stop?
How much change would be required to kick the fertilizer habit?
Conversion to a sustainable, global food system, immediately, would require a few conditions that are difficult to imagine, such as halving the world's population, complete conversion to vegetarianism (land consumed to grow animal feed would be needed for human food crops), and/or a significant (on the order of 15%) decrease in forests to make land available for crop production. It will be hard to tolerate any of these extremes, but they help visualize the immense gulf we must cross.
We have to get there slowly, of course. What is exciting is that the climate crisis and topsoil crisis - currently in a negative reinforcing spiral - can spiral positively if we turn things around. Healthy topsoil holds a massive amount of carbon.
From the abstract of the paper, Towards a global-scale soil climate mitigation strategy, published in the US Government's National Center for Biotechnology Information:
"Sustainable soil carbon sequestration practices need to be rapidly scaled up and implemented to contribute to climate change mitigation. We highlight that the major potential for carbon sequestration is in cropland soils, especially those with large yield gaps and/or large historic soil organic carbon losses."
There is also interesting information on the website of International Fertilizer Association. What struck me, recently, was a post from the end of March (2022), following a conference they held on sustainability. It's downright philosophical; soul-searching, even. They're people in a tough spot and deserve credit for this kind of discourse:
Reducing and even reversing biodiversity losses and decreasing emissions is likely to come - at least initially - with costs to the companies that do it. But these costs are by far outweighed by invaluable, and ultimately priceless benefits; through contributing to the future and well-being of our planet and help addressing the global risks related to nature; through being recognized as a responsible actor and solution provider to society..."
Let's do it!
Many people are making change happen, or doing things differently, and able to influence and disrupt partially through communicating on modern social media. I'll link to a couple below but, wow, there are so many.
Gabe is a highly educated rancher in North Dakota, both by academics and by dramatic life experience. Gabe is also a prolific speaker, educator, and entrepreneur. Combined, Gabe has become a global change maker. When you have a bit of time, treat yourself to a couple videos of Gabe describing what he has learned through bringing his 6,000-acre ranch back to production, after it failed in 1993.
Jimi (Sol) Eisenstein
I love the videos produced by Jimi on a variety of topics, because he has a talent for understanding complex things and talking about them in a simple way. He produces fun and informative content such as The Nitrogen Cycle I mentioned earlier.
I hope you enjoy Jimi's YouTube channel, and this relevant clip titled, What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Enjoy your soil!
If you're in the northern hemisphere, spring accompanies this post, and many of us are enjoying the warmer weather and outdoor activity. I'll leave you with a picture of this special guy, a morel mushroom (morchella elata clade) that appeared in one of our flower beds. We need some cool rains to bring out enough of them for dinner, but this is promising!
Jimi's dad is Charles Eisenstein, a Yale and life-educated philosopher, who is an intellectual engine behind some of Jimi's content. Kind of like Gabe, Charles became a powerful change agent after a mix of talent, education, and dramatic life experience germinated something within him.