The current global agricultural system supports the world’s population, which is approximately 6.8 billion people. However, the question of how long can the current agricultural system support this many people, becomes quite controversial and is a highly debated topic. As with any natural system, there is always going to be a limiting factor that determines how much food the land can produce, and in each ecosystem this limiting factor is likely going to be different. In some places it will be water, in other places it will be frost-free days, and still others it will be soil fertility. However, soil fertility, particularly a soil’s nitrogen content, is generally the most common factor limiting the land’s productivity. Traditionally, farmers relied on animal manures and compost to fertilize the soil. But, since the invention of the Haber-Bosch process, which uses natural gas to fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form of nitrogen readily available to plants, farmers around the world have increasingly relied on these so-called synthetic fertilizers to maintain their crop yields—currently about half of the nitrogen added to crop fields each year is fixed using the Haber-Bosch process. So, by some estimates, about half of the world’s population is eating food that can only be grown as long as there is an economically viable source of energy to artificially fix nitrogen into plant fertilizers.
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