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The Conversation Spain

The man who drew bread from the air (but also killed millions of people)

The “green revolution” promoted by the “father of modern agriculture”, the North American agronomist Norman Ernest Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1970, would not have been possible if, forty years earlier, the fields had not experienced another revolution whose Promoter was both a war criminal and responsible for the salvation of modern agriculture. Inspire thoroughly. You probably think you are filling your lungs with oxygen. It is not like this. Almost 80% of the air we breathe is nitrogen, the most abundant element in the atmosphere, which is vital for our existence, because, among other things, it is an essential component of nucleic acids and amino acids. Organic life, our life, is pure reactive chemistry, but paradoxically nitrogen is inert, as it does not interact with other elements. When we breathe, nitrogen enters the lungs and leaves again immediately without causing any reaction other than serving as a diluting agent for oxygen in respiration. To be useful, it must adopt other more reactive forms, such as ammonia, and they are bacteria do that work for us, fixing it and transforming it into nitrates so that it can be absorbed by plants in one of the fundamental cycles for the maintenance of life. The lack of nitrogen assimilable by plants seemed an insurmountable barrier at the beginning of the 20th century. Until the German chemist Fritz Haber invented artificial fertilizers a little more than a century ago, agricultural production depended on the use of fertilizers of natural origin (mainly saltpeter, guano and manure), resources close to exhaustion due to the growing demand for food driven by population growth. In 1907, Haber was the first to extract nitrogen directly from the air. As Benjamin Labatut recounts, Haber solved the fertilizer shortage that threatened to unleash a global famine the likes of which had never been seen before; Had it not been for him, hundreds of millions of people who until then relied on natural fertilizers to fertilize their crops might have died for lack of food.In previous centuries, insatiable demand had led English companies to travel to Egypt to plunder crops. funerary fields of the ancient pharaohs in search of the nitrogen contained in the bones of the thousands of slaves interred with their owners so that they would continue to serve them beyond death. The English grave robbers had already depleted the reserves of continental Europe; unearthed more than three million skeletons, including the bones of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and horses killed in the Napoleonic wars, to ship to the port of Hull in northern England, where the skeletons were ground in bone crushers from Yorkshire to use as fertilizer for England’s green and pleasant soil, a battlefield mulch that also produced teeth to be repurposed as false teeth.) Across the Atlantic, the skulls of more than thirty million bison Slaughtered on the American prairies were picked up one by one by poor settlers and ragged Indians to sell to the North Dakota Bone Union, which piled them into a church-sized pile before transporting them to Michigan factories that ground them. to produce fertilizers. The looting of graves ceased when Carl Bosch, the chief engineer at German chemical giant BASF, turned what Haber had achieved in the laboratory into an industrial process. In a short time, BASF was able to produce hundreds of tons of nitrogen in a factory operated by more than fifty thousand workers. The Haber-Bosch process was the most important chemical discovery of the 20th century: by doubling the amount of nitrogen available, it enabled the population explosion that grew the human population from 1.6 to 7 billion people in less than a hundred years. Today, about fifty percent of the nitrogen atoms in our bodies have been created artificially, and more than half of the world’s population depends on fertilized food thanks to Haber’s invention. In the Great War (1914-1918), the invention proved decisive: after the English fleet cut off access to the Chilean saltpeter, Germany would have had to surrender much earlier, unable to feed its population or obtain the raw material it needed. to continue making gunpowder and explosives. Resources and industrial power were key in a new type of war conflict, the most global known until then. The great powers mobilized their best talents. At the beginning of the 20th century, German science was cutting edge; In chemistry alone, seven of the Nobel prizes awarded between 1900 and 1918 were of that nationality. Among the latter, Haber was appointed head of the chemical supply department of the German army. The Great War was to be entirely new. On the European scene, operations ended up stalled on a trench front. The weapons that could be decisive, the fearsome toxic gases, had been regulated by the Hague treaties that prohibited their use within artillery shells. This prohibition responded to an ethical dilemma that had trapped politicians, the military and scientists. Supported by the tough sector of the army, Haber, who did not care about ethics, came up with the solution: gases were forbidden in projectiles, but what if he found a suitable substance to release from drums and let the wind Do the rest? The first gas attack in history wiped out French troops entrenched near Ypres in Belgium. When they woke up at dawn on Thursday, April 22, 1915, the soldiers saw a huge greenish cloud crawling towards them through no-man’s-land. As they passed, the leaves of the trees withered, birds fell dead from the sky, and the meadows were tinged with a sickly metallic color. By the time the first patrols dispatched to the silent battlefield reached the French lines, the trenches were empty, but a short distance away the bodies of French soldiers lay everywhere with scratched faces and necks trying to breathe again. Some had committed suicide. They were all dead. After the 1918 armistice that ended the First World War, Haber was declared a war criminal by the Allies. He had to take refuge in Switzerland, where he received the news that he had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for a discovery he had made shortly before the war, and that in the following decades would alter the destiny of the human species. The modern world could not exist without the man who “drew bread from the air,” in the words of the press of his day, although the immediate goal of his miraculous find was not to feed the starving masses. With Haber’s nitrogen, the European conflict dragged on for two more years, increasing casualties on both sides by several million people, hundreds of thousands of them wiped out by the deadly fogs invented by Haber himself.This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original. Manuel Peinado Lorca is responsible for the Federal Biodiversity Group of the PSOE.

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