Now it may take a decade or more for corn breeders to create a new variety of this corn that produces commercially viable yields but it will change not just the fertilizer industry but farming overall when it happens.
He was reported on by Radiolab in an episode about the good and bad that people do:
> And it's guys like Steve jobs that get called innovators! Absolute nonsense!
There are an infinite number of reasonable ways to measure innovation, and there are so many metrics by which "guys LIKE Steve Jobs"(whatever that means) come out on top.
From a humanitarian perspective, Fritz Haber ended up creating a process that helped us take huge steps forward as a collective species.
We can acknowledge that without putting down other innovators.
We can ALL be acknowledged for our innovation.
It also made possible the industrial production of dynamite and other conventional explosives, and you could say it's why WW2 dwarfed WW1 in terms of destructive power. Point is, it's not a one-sided issue as you say.
> Without that invention 40% of
> the world could not exist[...]
But of course if we didn't have fertilizer we would have never ended up with the current system, and e.g. meats would be a lot more expensive since they take more land to raise than vegetables, which would be in harder competition with them due to higher prices on land.
This is likely similar to claims that "in N years we'll run out of fossil fuels". No, in N years we'll run out of areas that are currently economical to mine for fossil fuels, but at that point prices will rise and new fields will open up.
Peak oil is a matter of when, not if. It is not an infinite resource. The interesting (and worrisome) question to me is if we'll be able to convert the transportation grid to predominantly electric (and thus powerable by solar/wind) before we hit a global peak and start losing maximum recoverable oil at 3-10%/year, which will cause intense price spikes and resource wars, due to inelastic demand.
There are massive areas off US coasts with proven reserves that are legally untouched (CA moratorium after Santa Barbara spill only allows for marginal/incremental pumping). In the time between those reserves being shut off and now, the economics of retrieving that oil changed completely, and there is now a ton of "easy oil" off the california coast.
Nobody's arguing that oil is not an infinite resource, but I can point to a single location that contains immense amounts of easily tappable oil.
While the original motivation for the CA moratorium was ecological, these days it's (implicitly) economic. All CA has to do is wait until the price spikes start happening, and dribble out oil at very high prices while hoping there isn't another Deepwater Horizon.
The proven reserves for California are based on historic estimates, they haven't been thoroughly re-evaluated, and were based on previous extraction technologies (before side-drilling etc). The current position of my friends who do oil/gas analysis is that California proven reserve estimates are at least 1 order of magnitude below reality mainly because people aren't actively looking because of the moratorium.
The point of all this is that California's offshore fields aren't all that special, and they aren't "easy oil". If they were, any environmentalist resistance would have been defeated long ago.
I know you said this in reference to Californian oil, but it also applies to Saudi oil. The number of dollars paid isn’t the only cost of using that oil.
At least install an effective blow-out protector.
Now, I probably should have picked a better comparison, since oil really is zero-sum in ways that needing to grow more food isn't.
The point is that in an alternate universe where agriculture was 40% less efficient it doesn't follow that there would be 40% fewer people. Rather, more of the gross world product would be spent on agriculture, since there's a lot you can do to throw more money at the problem to increase yields, and pricing would do a lot to increase the efficiency.
I disagree with the idea that there'd be proportionally less meat, for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of grazing-animal meat (beef, basically) comes from land that is unviable for plowing or other vegetation farming. Second, in the absence of inexpensive chemical fertilizer, manure would be a much more important fixer, just like it has been for thousands of years.
China was doing pretty well for itself for millennia with intensive terracing and silt harvesting. They have fields that have been under cultivation for four thousand years. We can barely manage four hundred.
And pre Columbian California was agrofoerstry from sea to foothills with seasonal migrations.
Without anhydrous ammonia we would have a diet much higher in legumes and lower in staple starch, which is probably killing us anyway. A more efficient source of high fructose corn syrup doesn’t inspire confidence in our future.
Corn still uses far too much water for us to sustain indefinitely.
[Edit] We would also be using more perennial crops, which don't have to build up an entire plant from seed every year. More efficient, as long as your form of civilization does not involve moving into new areas every ten years.
Before the introduction of western diseases, North America had a much larger population than we are taught in our Manifest Destiny classes. It's fair to say that the population here is about one order of magnitude greater, but if we ran the Mississippi watershed the way the Chinese managed the Yangtze ? Or the tribes of California?  We'd still be doing pretty well without anhydrous.
Again, though, we'd be eating a lot more beans. We should be eating a lot more beans. And nuts.
When Polynesians settled Hawai'i, they brought a couple dozen species with them (canoe plants) and found the Koa, a nitrogen fixing tree. When Europeans occupied Hawai'i, they brought a few more, including the monkeypod (another nitrogen fixing tree) as cattle fodder. The bean pods are high in protein.
> "However, in the soil of natural ecosystems, nitrogen occurs predominantly as proteins."
Everyone talks about the magic of nitrogen in plant and soil biology, but at the end of the day, it's the protein cycle that matters. "Feed the soil, feed the plant" requires polycultures instead of monocultures in order to work, but we could do it. We would have done it. George Washington Carver wanted to do it  but he got outmaneuvered by industrial agriculture (and structural racism). In another world without anhydrous he probably would have found more success.
Tl;dr: Things would look very, very different but not necessarily smaller - or worse - if not for chemical fertilizer, and we may have to get to that world soon if we want to keep on breathing and eating.
1: Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan, F. H. King
2: Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson
4: Roughly any book on Permaculture
5: My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver
The calculation should include logistics, nutritious food that can't be transported unspoiled to the people in need does little good.
Just fixing corruption would go a long way towards that goal.
Also goes for inventor reward. Contrast Diesel and Parsons.
Smil is a world treasure. Seriously, start reading his books.
NB, I'm looking for sources showing major inventions through history (Smil is one source). Roughly by decade to about 1850, 25 years to 1600, centuries to 1250 or so, and expanding granularity to 10,000, 100k, and 1m BCE.
Needham's Science & Civilisation is another source.
But yeah I agree with you there- at the time no one (maybe apart from Edison) knew how big an impact they would have.
Manfred Weissenbacher's Sources of Power is a difficult-to-find and somewhat uneven book, but builds largely on Smil's premise (from his earlier Energy and World History) to include political and social consequences.
I've been finding institutional and media consequences and dynamics also of interest. Some reading of interest:
More recently: Paul Baran and Norbert Wiener.
Life without it might've been possible, but we would be incomparably more reliant on cereals and natural sources of nitrogen fertilisers. And be sure, we would've still be having wars over fertile lands.
Just in time grocery store inventories and trucks with empty fuel tanks will starve as many people as Haberless crops.
Humanity is much more likely to suffer a huge calamity from lack of fossil fuels than it is to overcome the problem with technology.
Sounds ridiculous now, but at in 60-70ies (and to lesser extend today,) US had high double digits of world's total agricultural output
To get modern corn to do this will probably require a lot of breeding to bring together and select for the traits of both varieties.
Maybe this is quite common trait in other plant species and it is just not propagated due to the availability of nitrogen?
I found one source that looks promissing, but I haven't really read it: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13593-015-0329-7
Would that include rice? That would make it an even bigger deal wouldn't it?
How important is nitrogen fixing in combating desertification and could discoveries like this ultimately help reverse it?
In fact, using Azolla as rice companion plant is a long-standing practice in China: after flooding, rice paddies are seeded with Azolla, it multiplies (very) rapidly covering the surface and suppressing weeds (Azolla mats are very dense so water weeds get little to no sun) then releases nitrogen for the rice plants when it dies and rots.
I'm sure that agro people were working on this problem non-stop for decades.
It's a 9 month variety instead of a 3 month variet, and so if I was making a rough guess, I'd say that the most likely outcome is that this leads to a ~20-25% reduction in fertilizer use after it's bred into main crop lines (at least initially.) Honestly though, now that this trait is around, it's going to be a lot easier for big seed companies to breed improvements into this. This is huge, and incredibly exciting.
Of course, in situations when a farmer simply cannot afford to buy nitrogen fertilizers, the potentially lower yield doesn't matter, because the only alternative is no yield at all.
Plants get energy from the sun, but can only use it to grow if the right nutrients are available. Nitrogen is needed for protein synthesis and must be readily available. So this is a win-win for corn and bacteria.
Synthetic NPK fertilizers are a way of giving plants what they need: generally, farmers will almost always put nitrogen regardless of what the soil already has, which has unintended consequences.
So this symbiosis has an added bonus for human communities.
Another way of making nitrogen available to plants is to plant mixed crops. The problem with corn is that the shoots are too close to each other to allow anything else to grow, which is something common in large scale agriculture, whose current practice is to make use of large patches of land dedicated to a single annual crop. Whatever is left from the harvest should and must be reintegrated into the soil.
So, yes, it is an energy intensive, demanding process, but we NEED to make the corn plants do it. Every plant would rather pass the buck to another plant species (or our species) and not have to deal with the trouble of making their own nitrogen. But when we provide nitrogen, in the form of fertilizer, for the plants, the environmental impact is immense. The fertilizer washes off into the nearby stagnant bodies of water, creating huge algal blooms that can suffocate whatever was trying to live in that water.
It’s just that we’re overwhelming this sequestration mechanism by digging up and burning dead phytoplankton much faster than new ones grow to replace them.
But eutrophication has other issues: it is harmful for animal life and it unbalances the ecosystem, degrading biodiversity and overall making natural carbon sequestration poorer.
Maybe in a controlled setting, one could use a dragnet to harvest algae and use it for fertilization. That would certainly improve the efficiency of nitrogen usage.
Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems anywhere, and might sequester substantial biomass.
A freshwater pond plant, eeffectively, may be responsible for an earlier global cooling period due to carbon sequestration.
I did a quick search and found an abstract of an old paper (https://www.nature.com/articles/267149a0) that estimates around 15% of total energy used for nitrogen fixation. The value probably depends a lot on various factors, but it is certainly a significant amount.
Also nitrogenase is very porous and oxygen sensitive so for photosynthetic organisms sequestering the nitrogen fixation away from co2 fixation is a major challenge. Nostoc deals with it by evolving terminal cell differentiation... Cyanothece has a night/day genetic switch, and higher plants fix nitrogen as far away from the leaves as possible.
Wow that's crazy. And to think life absolutely depends on it, so I guess it used natural sources of ammonia.
(And to think the same substance that's so dear to plants is excreted by animals, including us)
I don't know, on the one hand it may have evolved only once, on the other hand it seems to have been hit fairly early on (1.5~2.2Ga, quickly following significant expansion of oxygen production so the needs for additional bioavailable nitrogen could have been a direct consequence of that and just not necessary before) and spread around by lateral genetic transfer, significantly lowering the chances that it'd evolve again.
 it may also have evolved multiple times in a short time-span, and have had no need to re-evolve since
And we are hiring: http://pivotbio.com/careers
Beans also partner with nitrogen-fixers, but farmers fertilize them with nitrogen anyway. Why? Higher yield. And then the beans stop partnering with the nitrogen-fixers because they're already getting nitrogen for free without having to feed and house the microbes.
So this is great for people who don't have access to fertilizer (as the article notes!) but it will do nothing to solve the overapplication of fertilizer in industrial agriculture.
(Those "roots" look hella cool, though.)
UPDATE: I may have been mistaken about the exact relationship -- it's possible this could reduce nitrogen inputs somewhat for industrial ag, but maybe only if the soil isn't already saturated with N. Need to go back and look at sources... https://igrow.org/agronomy/soybeans/application-of-nitrogen-... has some of the info.
Shame on you, U.C.Davis. Your own article literally explains this, why the disingenuous headline?
Which has negligible environmental benefit, and is a pointless long-term strategy given that the vehicle fleet is becoming increasingly electrified.
Its a shame that political solutions to more effectively use the Earth's resources are more difficult than bioengineering corn.
The study found the Sierra Mixe corn obtains 28 to 82 percent of its nitrogen from the atmosphere. To do this, the corn grows a series of aerial roots. Unlike conventional corn, which has one or two groups of aerial roots near its base, the nitrogen-fixing corn develops eight to ten thick aerial roots that never touch the ground.
During certain times of the year, these roots secrete a gel-like substance, or mucilage. The mucilage provides the low-oxygen and sugar-rich environment required to attract bacteria that can transform nitrogen from the air into a form the corn can use.
I am all for research into GMO and controlled applications in medicine and secure problem cases, but find the history of industry and mass agriculture can not yet be trusted with it.
I also presume it may not happen for a very long time as most of the big seed companies would be presumably very against it.
As cool as it is, I'm not clear that it actually helps efficiency in industrial agriculture. Partly depends on how efficient the symbiotes are vs. how expensive synthetic fertilizer production is.
Even if it wasn't quite as efficient, could it be worth the trade-off in terms of reduced CO2? As the application of synthetic fertiliser etc is very fossil fuel intensive?
I also don't know if the wheat plants are even sugar-limited, for that matter! I guess what I'm saying is "plants are complicated". :-P
This would really be amazing. Honest concern... How does the fertilizer industry fight this? There are billions of dollars a year at stake here. Nobody faces billions of lost revenue without a fight.
At some point, there's not enough money you can lobby with compared to the real world needs and competing lobbies (here: food/nmonsanto etc) and the balance shifts. Also, in non-US countries people might take a more pragmatic approach, giving new tech a leg up.
E.g., China, India might not care so much about the US fertilizer lobby.
I just don't see any other angle to attack nitrogen fixing corn other than to make some sort of GMO boogeyman out of it. It is really amazing the amount of misinformation that is populating the world for the purpose of protecting cash cows.
sidenote Thanks for the downvotes :) apparently my sarcasm hit a nerve.
I have a hard time believing that this will become a huge problem in China and India particularly. The gov there isn't interested in giving these storylines a leg up, and people have other problems, such as Melamine-contaminated baby formula (or having food shortages)