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Finding the world’s greatest fix

A rare find in the library has given Les Henry food for thought on a cold winter evening

In the winter months I spend time in the University of Saskatchewan library and often stumble on a great book that I was not really looking for. One such find is the subject of this article.

The headline for this piece has nothing to do with a needle in a back alley of a seedy part of town. It is the title of a book: The World’s Greatest Fix: a History of Nitrogen and Agriculture by G.J. (Jefferey) Leigh, professor emeritus, University of Sussex, Brighton, England. The book was published in 2004 by Oxford University Press.

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I read the library copy cover to cover and then bought a personal copy at Amazon to have on my shelf for reference. It is beautifully written and not at all stiff and boring — an engaging read for sure. I have contacted Jefferey Leigh via email, visited the University of Sussex via their website and toured Brighton, on the south coast of England via Google Earth, Street View. A great learning experience.

The lesson in the preface

The book’s preface is a lesson all by itself. In the 1960s the U.K. was flush with money and established a new generation of universities, including Sussex at Brighton. The then-Agricultural Research Council (ARC) funded a new “Unit of Nitrogen Fixation” at the University of Sussex. The mandate was to find out how biological nitrogen fixation worked.

For 30 years, the Unit was well funded and unencumbered by bureaucracy. It became the world leader in that area of science, hosted many visiting scientists and added greatly to fundamental knowledge. But alas, funding partners began to ask for agricultural applications of the work, found none, and the unit was wound down.

The lesson of all this is that basic research, particularly in agriculture, must be partnered with folks that have some dirt under their fingernails and the ability to communicate results to the publics that pay the bills.

Jefferey Leigh admitted that the applications of the work of the Unit were few. But, during his tenure he realized the Unit was part of a long history of folks that unraveled the secrets of soil fertility, going back centuries. He gathered centuries worth of work and said: “I also discovered that the story of the work is not just dry scientific facts and discoveries. It also shows those involved as real human beings with all the faults, sometimes considerable, of human beings…”

The end result is a fascinating read about the history of agriculture and soil fertility in particular.

Gems from the past, lessons for the future

There are many fascinating stories from the past to be found in Jefferey Leigh’s book and considered for our future.

London sewage and livestock manure:

In the 1870s the Native Quano Company developed a process to convert London sewage into saleable manure. Sir William Crookes estimated that the waste of manure was like flushing millions of loaves of bread down the Thames River each day.

Our very own City of Saskatoon has made a contribution in this regard. Some of the material from the sewage treatment plant is converted to struvite, an ammonium magnesium phosphate — a specialty fertilizer.

Our lesson for the future is that we must work harder at finding ways to better utilize the nutrients generated by our intensive livestock industry. It will take some basic chemistry to find the solutions — trial and error will not be enough. I am convinced that 100 years from now society will look back and wonder why we wasted so many valuable nutrients.

Among some of the earlier N fertilizers, Leigh describes the production of ammonium chloride (NH4Cl — 25-0-0 64 per cent Cl) in Egypt by distillation from camel dung. A Google search of ammonium chloride fertilizer shows it to be readily available in China and available at Great Plains Fertilizers, Olathe, Kansas. Chloride has been linked to disease control so maybe we should take a closer look.

As we struggle with ways and means to better utilize plant nutrients that are considered “waste” by intensive livestock operations I am aware that the bulk of nitrogen loss in feedlots is gaseous NH3. Has anyone examined the feasibility of “fixing” that NH3 into NH4Cl by passing it through a solution of HCl-hydrochloric acid?

Land tenure:

Leigh managed to assemble a lot of information on ancient agriculture in China, including maps of land holdings of various dynasties and empires. He found written records of landholdings back to ~500 BC. To make a long story short, China has nationalized the land and turned it back to the people many times. But, alas each time after the land was turned back to the people it again was eventually held in fewer and fewer hands, so the process was repeated.

This exact question is what our Saskatchewan Government has dealt with as it closes up loopholes to insure that farmers continue to own the bulk of the land. My grandfather and many of yours came to Saskatchewan to own their very own piece of ground. They did not come here to be sharecroppers!

Ancient China — legumes, recycling and crop rotation:

China has fed a lot of people on not that much land for centuries. Sustainable food production has relied on crop rotation including legumes and recycling almost everything.

In the Canadian Prairies we have just recently learned those lessons and our lesson for the future is to not backslide to two crops and one herbicide.

Early North American agriculture:

Leigh also assembled interesting facts about the agriculture of the Mohave Yuma and Cocopa peoples along the Colorado River south of Lake Mead, near Las Vegas where most readers have visited.

They relied on the annual flood for nutrient supply and planted in areas of a natural high water table.

The lesson in that piece is that many crops that surprised us in the dry spell this spring came from soil moisture, including high natural water tables caused by the past decade of plentiful (sometimes excessive) rain and snow.

And yet, despite all the professional help available to farmers, how many have any clue where their current water table sits? See my column in “Grainews” October 20, 2015 to rectify that situation.

An interesting note

One very interesting note about industrial nitrogen fixation was explained by Leigh. It was described by British patent 12,401 of 1905. “…oxides of nitrogen were to be produced in what was essentially the cylinder of a large diesel engine and then absorbed in water. Today this would be considered as an environmental hazard rather than a commercial opportunity.”

Do any readers remember the folks that sucked up diesel exhaust from the tractor and piped it to spew out beneath the cultivator shovels? I recall one such chap at Irma, Alta., and another, I think, Montana example. Was there not even a bit of field evaluation of yield effects? Most of us dismissed the idea, but just maybe there is something there.

My attempts to retrieve that patent via Internet search were unsuccessful. I contacted Jefferey Leigh and he was to try also, but I’ve had no reply. Maybe a bright young, computer savvy reader will find that patent.

Feeding a hungry world

Much of the reason we can now feed the world is that we know how to fix N2 from the atmosphere into a form we can use to maintain N fertility of the soil. Leigh credits 40 per cent of current food production to the Haber-Bosch process of fixing atmospheric N2 into NH3. (The HaberBosch is an industrial process used to take Hydrogen from water, Nitrogen from air and make then into NH3 [anhydrous ammonia]. It took place in Germany in early 1900s.)

Leigh found that ancient civilizations did try to maintain soil fertility but despite their best efforts, there were recurring famines during which populations declined. His conclusion: “Agricultural productivity did not increase beyond a fairly basic subsistence level until farming became more scientific.” He further concludes that there is no reason that we cannot adequately feed the population; his book is all about how we got to where we are.

Our current research community would be well advised to heed the lesson learned by the Unit of Nitrogen Fixation so many years ago. Basic science and curiosity research is the real winner but to keep the funding streams in place the taxpaying public needs to be kept informed and get a payback every so often.

In conclusion, The World’s Greatest Fix is a great piece of work. If you want a fascinating bit of reading for long winter nights you can find it on Amazon.com.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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