What N the World?

If you have been paying attention to farm news, you may have noticed that Nitrogen has become the hot new pollutant, one that governments around the world are clamouring to regulate and restrict.   What’s going on with that?

Well, to begin with this deadly pollutant makes up 78% of our atmosphere, and is of course the most significant plant macronutrient.  If you’re a farmer or a gardener, you know it makes things grow like crazy.  An old timer I know understands it to be called “Nutrigen”, and he’s not far off: it’s got what plants crave.

Early in the 20th century, when there were less than 2 billion people on the planet, the Haber-Bosch process was developed: this allowed mankind to synthesize Ammonia (NH3) from the atmosphere.  Since then, the human population has been growing like crazy as well: today 8 billion people rely on synthetic nitrogen for their daily bread.

Unsurprisingly, something as significant as the Haber-Bosch process is energy intensive: it relies on natural gas as it’s fuel source and substrate, and its production releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide (which is the only thing plants love more than nitrogen).  So, as you see and hear politicians go on about “nitrogen” this, “fertilizer” that, please understand that they’re really just using Nitrogen as a proxy for their de-carbonification agenda.

The N that Canadian policy makers have in their targets is NO2… yes, laughing gas.  Believe it or not, all soils everywhere release NO2 all of the time, and have since time immemorial.  Unfortunately, you can’t sniff the air over the dirt and catch a buzz (don’t bother, I’ve tried!) but when farmers apply fertilizer and manure (you know, to grow food for people) the soil releases slightly more of it.  Making up a whopping 335 parts per billion of our atmosphere, NO2 is a suspected greenhouse gas.

The current federal *goal* is to reduce NO2 emissions by 30%.  Because there is no way that this can possibly be measured, the only way to achieve this arbitrary millstone -sorry- milestone, will be for Canadian farmers to reduce their N use by 30%.  And although this program is *voluntary*, it has been suggested that access to AgriStability (crop insurance) will be tied to compliance.  The only way we could make Canadian food more expensive, and Canadian farms less competitive would be if we added some sort of new, progressively increasing tax to all of the fuel that farmers use…. oh wait.

The part that should have you most worried about the war on Nitrogen though, is that it is an attack on the very essence of life.

Nitrogen is such a significant nutrient because our friend ammonia (NH3) forms the basis of all of the Amino Acids.  I apologize for repeating Grade 12 biology to you, but amino acids are what proteins are made out of.   This is, for instance, why leguminous, nitrogen fixing crops (alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, soy, etc.) tend to have such high protein contents. 

Proteins are composed of long strings of aminos, and their various charges fold them up in dizzying ways to make all of nature work.  As a familiar example, Hemoglobin: the protein in our blood that moves and exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the cells of our body to our lungs, is made up of four Polypeptide Chains totaling 574 (ammonia-based) Amino Acids. 

So how do these chains get made?  This is where is gets really amazing… The information that is translated into these proteins is our DNA.  Our genetic code is the blueprint for the length and order of all of these sequences.  What we refer to as a Gene is the instructions for linking amino acids into a specific protein.  We don’t even know how many genes we have, but it is tens of thousands, and they are all found in our DNA. 

To put it more simply, and to put it in context of fertilizer: our bodies, – not to mention bacteria, birch trees, bald eagles and belugas – we are all essentially Ammonia 3D Printers.   This is the essence and structure of all life.   Far from being a pollutant, Nitrogen is the material God has apparently chosen to express and manifest His wisdom – I would be very suspect of anyone who tries to withhold it from you.

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