The Omnivore's Dilemma

January 4, 2009

A couple salient points from Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma:

  • In the early 20th century, corn breeders looking to control the means of production crossed two corn plants from inbred lines (ancestors that had been self-pollinated over several generations) creating cloned corn that looked exactly alike, had higher yields than either parent, and seeds whose offspring yielded smaller production by almost one third. This hybrid corn offered its breeders the biological equivalent of a patent, forcing farmers to buy new seeds for every planting season, rather than relying on the plants to reproduce themselves as in the past. This created a corn breeding industry that poured money into R&D, promotion, and advertising for corn, and forced farmers into dependency with this assured return on investment.

  • After World War 2 the U.S. government found itself with a surplus of ammonium nitrate, a main ingredient in producing explosives, which happens to be a wonderful source of nitrogen for plants. After considering spraying American forests with this surplus chemical, the government instead thought it more profitable to use it on farm lands as fertilizer which nicely complimented the pesticides derived from poison gasses developed for the war. The policy of spraying crops to deter pests and encourage growth began, ironically enough, with the chemicals designed to kill.

  • Fritz Haber's discover of synthetic nitrogen was one of the most important innovations of the 20th century that no one has ever heard of. Prior to Haber's discovery, the only way to create usable nitrogen for plants was using soil bacteria living on the roots of leguminous plants or a shock of electric lightning to the soil. This limited the total amount of human life that earth could support through the growing of crops in nitrogen-rich soil. By 1900 it was thought that population growth would cease relative to the amount of crops that could be produced. But Haber's process to synthesize nitrogen changed all of that allowing a world with 2/5 more people. Without this synthetic fertilizer billions of people could never have been born. Haber developed synthetic nitrogen during World War 1, along with a variety poison gasses (including Zyklon B used in Hitler's concentration camps). His wife, a fellow chemist, killed herself over her husband's contribution to the war effort and Haber fled Jewish persecution in the early thirties to die ignominiously in a Basel hotel room in 1934.