Feeding the world

John DiTraglia M.D.


The Haber-Bosch process of using the the nitrogen from the air where it is 80%, makes it possible to feed the 7 billion people in the world and lots more. There is still hunger and starvation in the world and even, incredibly, in this country, but that is not because over all there isn’t enough food but because of political problems.

At the turn of the last century it was determined that farmers were not going to be able to feed many more people than the 1.6 billion that were already here, because nitrogen from the soil gets depleted over time and nitrogen in the form that plants need to grow – “fixed nitrogen” – could not be replenished fast enough with the inefficient fertilizers then available. In 1909 Fritz Haber developed a method using the nitrogen from the air and hydrogen from natural gas and special catalysts and heat and pressure to make ammonia. Carl Bosch, another German chemist then developed a way to industrialize the process. The Haber-Bosch process now produces 450 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year, and 80% of the nitrogen in your body comes from this process.

So there’s plenty of food to feed the world for now, even as we manage to over-feed almost everybody and export a lot with less and less farmland in this country thanks to smart farmers. But another idea to feed even more is to have everybody become a vegetarian and stop eating meat. In the whole world more than a third of crop calories go to feed animals and that is an inefficient use of those calories compared to eating the plant crops ourselves and fruits and vegetables are healthier for you. (1) Also this production that feeds us meat, dairy and eggs from animals adds more greenhouse gasses.

A recent analysis of this proposition was recently published and it’s not that great of an idea just yet. (2) Removing farmed animals would increase human food production 23% and decrease agricultural greenhouse gas emissions 28% in the US, yes. But we would have to eat more volume of food and a greater excess of calories to get enough protein and calcium and essential fats and amino acids and some vitamins. It would create a food supply that would be incapable of supporting the US population’s nutritional requirements without some difficult implementation issues.

Also animals eat from non-arable grasslands and hill sides and can be fed stuff that humans can’t eat and turn that into human food. Also non-food animal products like adhesives, ceramics, cosmetics, fertilizer, germicides, glues, candies, refining sugar, textiles, upholstery, photographic films, ointments, paper, heart valves, and other products would have to be replaced somehow.

White explains: “With carefully balanced rations, you can meet all of your nutrient requirements with a vegetarian diet. But the types of foods that seem to do that, we don’t currently produce in sufficient quantities to make it a sustainable diet for the entire population.” (3)

So it’s complicated.


John DiTraglia M.D.

John DiTraglia M.D. is a Pediatrician in Portsmouth. He can be reached by e-mail- jditrag@zoomnet.net or phone-354-6605.

John DiTraglia M.D. is a Pediatrician in Portsmouth. He can be reached by e-mail- jditrag@zoomnet.net or phone-354-6605.


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