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How humans conquered food

Humans live in a paradox. We are the only species to have evolved enough in brain power to be able to manipulate the world we inhabit. We farm it and are one of only two species to do so. The other species is the humble ant, who farm aphids. Just consider that. The only two species on Earth that farm are humans and ants.

The gigantic conundrum humans face is that our survival hinges upon success in the cultivation of food. The more successful we are, the better our chances of survival become. Many moons ago, ancient farmers would struggle through the seasons to produce enough crops to last through the winter, hence the creation of superfoods like kimchi! This probiotic-rich super-food is a product of a more natural approach to cultivation where you had to make the best of what you grew. Pickled and fermented foods were a way to use up the abundant harvest in the autumn and not starve to death in the winter when very little would grow.

However, as time moved on, humans hacked farming. It started with the industrial revolution, like everything else of this magnitude. Humans began to move away from artisanship and small-scale production toward mass production. This did two things, it proved that mass production lowered costs and it armed industrious capitalists with the idea that bigger thinking was possible. It took a while, but eventually, a few wily scientists, led by Fritz Haber, discovered something named the Haber-Bosch process. Without turning this into a chemistry class, it involves the production of ammonia from the most abundant atmospheric gas - nitrogen (79% of the Earth’s atmosphere). This was massive. Plants thrive when given chemical fertilisers like this, growing faster and providing a lot more produce. When you pick out a giant, rosy, bulbous apple from the fridge, it’s probably a direct child of the Haber-Bosch process. Now, before we get onto the effects of this on the world economy, it’s worth pausing to note the irony of Haber’s discovery. Fritz Haber happened upon the process while making poisonous chemical weapons during the First World War. These chemical weapons wrought terrible tolls on the men fighting in the conflict and turned a page on humanity’s ability to efficiently kill one another. Nevertheless, Haber was given the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his discovery of ammonia fertiliser because it changed everything. It was a game changer. The effects of Haber’s discovery were transformational. Western nations suddenly discovered a method to produce enough food, year after year, on a mass scale. It changed a basic component of human life and changed society along with it. Industrialised nations were able to put it into practice and create a food industry unlike anything that could have been conceived in the entirety of human history. Be it beef, broccoli or Brussel sprouts, unless it says organic on the packet, it has been made possible by the Haber-Bosch process.

But do you notice one thing? We said industrialised nations. Like any good capitalist invention, it is an advantage and only achievable by some. Even now, where 33% of Americans weigh more than the other 66%, people are starving around the world.

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