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Ag Science

The Quiet Giant of Food and Agriculture


14 minute read

It brings the past much closer when we consider that many people alive today had grandparents that lived through part of The Industrial Revolution. To put that in context, Napoleon reigned during part of that revolution.

The grandparents of today’s 90 year olds lived through an explosive part of history. They saw the advent of everything from electricity, to indoor plumbing, public health, billionaires, cities and pollution –all of which began to create entirely new realities for humans to adapt to.

During that time mankind made several key discoveries that we still rely on heavily to this day, and yet those discoveries are almost completely hidden by time. This is about such a discovery.

It’s important to note that The Industrial Revolution was largely an unintended consequence that emerged from geographical/cultural discoveries, as well as those made through the sciences; in chemistry, engineering, material sciences and analytics. And it couldn’t have all come at a better time, for the population was exploding along with our technologies.

1851 was the first year in history that any nation had more people living in cities rather than in the country, and that in and of itself was a sign of the revolution. As machines made agriculture easier, it freed up almost half of society to pursue careers off the farm. It is still the case today that absolutely every other job on Earth depends on farmers to ensure every other worker has access to a stable food supply.

It is still the case that absolutely every other job on Earth depends on farmers to ensure every other worker has access to a stable food supply.

Agricultural efficiency meant London, for a long time the world’s largest city, had 2.5 million residents by 1850. There were tremendous hardships during that growth period without a doubt. But there is also no question that people’s lives were improving faster than ever before thanks to both science and technology.

To celebrate London’s modernity, 1851 saw the construction of the largest and most impressive building ever seen. At close to 77,000 square meters (19 acres) it was awesome by the day’s standards. But more than that, it was also the world’s first well-lit building, for The Crystal Palace got its name thanks to being constructed from over a quarter of a million panes of the recently invented marvel, plate glass.

Inside were the discoveries and creations that were powering the Industrial Revolution. The bright building was filled to the brim with exciting and revolutionary things like toilets, which –when you stop to really think about it– were quite the marvel for people who had always lived without them.

But what other kind of wonders did they put in such a museum of technology? What technological discovery was so incredible that it warranted its own display space as well as notation here, 170 years later?

The reason we should care about the answer to that is because, in essence, at least one of those featured items was –and still is– very much responsible for most of us being alive today.

Food Security

In the 300 years between 1500 and 1800, on average there was one famine per nation per decade. Imagine not eating one year in ten! That was totally normal for 300 years, and before that things were routinely worse. Then, in the late 1700’s Europe’s hope began when potatoes first made their way from South America.

The versions from back then had high levels of natural toxins that the South American natives dealt with by eating clay along with their potato. Many animals do this, and in the case of humans, the clay binds to the toxic glycoalkaloids which prevents them from entering the bloodstream, thereby offering the eater protection.

Rather than teach Europeans to start eating clay, instead, a man named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier did some impressive potato breeding and reduced the toxins in several breeds of potatoes, relatives of which many of us still consume.

Coincidentally and rather famously, King Louis the XVI chose that time to make grain far more expensive with a tax. We all likely recall that his wife, Marie Antoinette, is reported to have suggested to the peasants who couldn’t afford bread that they should make pastries instead (aka “let them eat cake”).

Of course, the Queen literally lost her head to the guillotine, but that tax and the potato’s reliability soon lead to the spud making up 30-60% of a European’s diet. The simple fact was, tubers failed less often and were actually quite healthy.

By the latter half of the 1700’s most Europeans consistently had enough healthy food to eat for the first time in history. As with all animals, that lead to people having more children, which meant agriculture was forced to keep pace.

The next major piece of modern food puzzle dropped into place in 1840 when a chemist with the rather awesome name of Justus von Liebig figured out that plants needed nitrogen to create chlorophyll. Boom.

Chlorophyll is what allows plants to eat light.

Everyone knows about compost and manure and fertilizer today. But before Justus von Leibig, no one realized that nitrogen and potassium were key components to plant growth.

Remember Jr. High science class? Chlorophyll is that stunning green molecule that can absorb light energy and trade electrons with other particles. In doing so it can create a form of energy that converts the sun’s energy into mass. Chlorophyll is what allows plants to eat light.

It’s a stunning idea that’s in front of us every day. Plants eat light. Imagine if we could just put a baby in the sun and we only gave it water and a few chemicals, but it grew like it had eaten lots of really healthy food. It’s stunning. Miraculous. But to make that wondrous chlorophyll, Justus taught us that plants need plain old abundant nitrogen.

The Earth’s air is mostly nitrogen, but in our air the bonds on the nitrogen are so tight that the plant can’t tear them apart to make use of the chemical it needs. It’s like we’re the plant and we’re starving, and someone gives us a pull-top can of beans but the pull-top has no tab to pull so the can is impossible to open. It’s the same for plants with airborne nitrogen.

That air bond being as tight as it is, plants prefer to absorb nitrogen through nitrates in the soil they grow in. But over time those naturally get depleted because we keep carting harvests off the same soil. We do have to eat, and the plants use the nutrients to power their growth systems, so it becomes easy to see why the nitrogen replenishment issue was and is a real challenge for humanity.

Just because Justus knew nitrogen worked didn’t mean farmers or plants had a source of it. Fortunately, the world’s discoveries were hardly over.

By the 1830’s, Darwin and others are venturing past Argentina into the Pacific Islands where they are starting to find places so heavily populated with birds that entire islands were covered in bird poop 50 meters (150 feet) thick. At the same time, other Europeans in South America were noticing that the natives curiously traded in bird dung….

As many might guess, the connection between the South Americans trading in bird poop cross pollinated with Justus von Liebig’s discovery. That quickly converted Pacific Islands covered in poop into a places covered in nitrogen gold.

Guano was soon so valuable that by 1856 the US Congress had passed an Act that unilaterally gave the US the right to seize any unclaimed islands they found that were covered in bird poo.

Back in Europe, people added nitrogen fertilizer to potatoes and machines to the fields. Shortly thereafter, the world rather suddenly had the best-fed population in world history, using fewer people to grow it than ever before. But just like other animals have more young when their food supply is ample, human animals did likewise.

Before anyone knew it, the world saw its second population explosion (the first was after the initial discovery of the store-able grasses –wheat, corn and rice– 12,000 years earlier). That flood of food-security births was further compounded by baby booms following two World Wars. By the 1980’s popular predictions for the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s suggested hundreds of millions of people would be starving to death every year. But….

Once again, science came to the rescue with improved breeding by Norman Borlaug, the father of The Green Revolution. Again fertilizer proved its importance by playing a key role in powering Borlaug’s new crops.

By then we were running low on bird dung, but around that time the Haber-Bosch process proved it could turn airborne nitrogen into the fixed nitrogen farmers could use. It saved billions from starvation and yet very few people are even aware of its critical importance.

But what has all of this got to do with a display in a huge glass building in London, 100 years earlier, in 1851? What kind of wonders did they put in a plate glass museum of marvelously shocking technology? What was so incredible that it warranted its own display space? A place of honour and distinction?

The answer? Some of that South American bird poop. Chemicals. Fertilizer. Nitrogen. People lined up to have a look. Today we take it completely for granted, but it was big news for people used to starving one year in ten. They were excited to see the stuff that was keeping their bellies full. They marveled at it, as we should as well.

Indeed, synthetic nitrogen has its price to both farmers and the environment. But it must be weighed on balance, because even today there is no escaping the fact that it is our only viable way to generate 50% of the world’s food.  At this point in history, it is literally irreplaceable.

At a time when innocent ignorance and chemophobia are threatening to take away some of society’s most valuable tools, it’s important for people to understand the value of smart chemistry.

The world has serious challenges, but it is also achieving stunning things. If humans from the 1700’s and 1800’s managed to convert bird poop into a tool that feeds 3.5 billion people, then there are many reasons to be optimistic in a world filled with more brilliant scientists than ever, especially considering the fact that they are working in a world that sees human knowledge double every single year.

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Ag Business

Saskatchewan to Invest $11 Million in Funding for Ag Crops

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tomato and syringe

By Emily Folk

Saskatchewan to Invest $11 Million in Funding for Ag Crops

CropSphere is an annual conference, held seven years running in Saskatchewan, designed to inform and empower the Canadian agricultural industry on the latest developments, partnerships and technologies.

One of the most important news items out of the conference tends to be the announcement by the Saskatchewan government of its latest investments in the Agriculture Development Fund (ADF). This tradition continued on January 14, 2020, when Agriculture Minister David Marit announced a slate of crop-focused research initiatives to further empower the ADF as well as farmers and industrial growers across the country.

$11 Million for 47 New Ag Research Projects

The Agriculture Development Fund is part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP). CAP is a federal-provincial funding system that’s on track to spend $388 million over five years on strategic agricultural research across Saskatchewan. Agriculture Minister Marit said of the ADF’s efforts, “We know these investments pay off. In fact, for every dollar we invest in research, there is a nine-to-one return on our investment.”

One of ADF’s goals is to increase the production of Saskatchewan crops to 45 million tons by 2030, and the value of those crops to $10 billion by the same year.

The $11 million in ADF funding comes from federal and provincial governments. Plus, additional money — to the tune of $8.7 million — comes from partners such as Western Grains Research Foundation, the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commission, Saskatchewan Forage Seed Development Commission, Genome Canada and many others.

These 47 new agricultural technology and methodology projects cover a wide range of opportunities and concerns. Each one supports the overarching mission of raising the value of crops produced in Saskatchewan and beyond and improving the yield of Canada’s primary agricultural products, including wheat, corn, soybeans, barley and oats.

The announced projects include research in the following areas:

  • Mitigation techniques for herbicide-resistant crop plants.
  • New methods for detecting and controlling clubroot and other diseases.
  • New technologies to efficiently separate starch proteins from different types of flour.
  • Ways to improve the diversity and stability of wheat crops to ensure they won’t fall victim to disease.
  • Methods for screening lentil and pea variants for resistance to root rot, fusarium avenaceum and other fungi.
  • Visual analytics tools to reduce labor costs, improve the effectiveness of crop inspections and spot problems.

Receiving funding for ADF projects involves competing with other researchers. Interested parties must demonstrate how their product or methodology solves an existing pain point or addresses the larger goal of boosting crop outputs.

No avenue of scientific research is off the table as long as it demonstrates merit. The material sciences regularly turn out new products for dealing with crop spoilage, pests and other factors that cause harvested crops to spoil before their time. Other projects focus on demystifying the genome of key cash crops and creating new variants that can shrug off environmental stresses.

A Call to Arms to Feed the World Sustainably

Sustainability is one of the major undercurrents any time the ADF announces a new round of agricultural research funding. Data indicates there will be 3 billion more people to feed in 2050 than in 2010. Experts also predict a 56% food gap between the calories produced by agriculture in 2010 versus the calories required to feed the population by 2050.

Research like this reveals that business-as-usual isn’t sufficient. Agricultural experts cannot meet needs without ongoing research into crop yields and resistance, soil health, efficient ways to use water and fertilizers and new crop variants that resist extreme weather.

As Agriculture Minister Marit indicated, the ROI from funding these scientific efforts is high. However, putting a price on feeding the world’s hungry is more complicated.

I’m Emily Folk, and I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. Growing up I had a love of animals, and after countless marathons of watching Animal Planet documentaries, I developed a passion for ecology and conservation.  You can read more of my work by clicking this link:   Conservation Folks.




Other stories from Emily Folk:

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Extreme Weather Patterns Causing State of Agricultural Emergency in Canada


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