Got food? Thank Norway.

Picture of the river that runs right past my home. What has this to do with your food?  Read on!

The real world is a complex place. It seems unlikely that the chilly mountain country Norway would contribute much to the world’s food supply, although we do export plenty of fish and the excellent Jarlsberg cheese, known for its mild and pure taste. However, looking up the word “Yara” may give you a surprise.

In 1905 the Norwegian researchers Dag Birkeland and Sam Eyde invented a way to create artificial fertilizer from thin air, by extracting nitrogen through electricity. Norway had, and still has, plenty of hydropower. So Birkeland & Eyde set about supplying the world with cheap fertilizer. Hydro, now Yara, is still the world’s leading supplier.

With all due respect to manure, which is a sustainable and local resource, it remains a fact that the high yield farming of the modern world relies heavily on mineral fertilizer. If not for the curiosity of the two Norwegian scientists and the nearby source of cheap energy, extracting nitrogen from the air might not have taken place in time to feed the flood of humans whose lives were spared by antibiotics and improved hygiene during the 20th century.

Of course, this is only one of many megatrends that have converged during the last few generations.  I would probably not have known of this one if I was not Norwegian – we learned about it in school (repeatedly, I think) and the company that was founded on the invention is still in the news occasionally.

These many seemingly unrelated events seem to push us ever closer to something. It is as if some kind of rising tide is sweeping humanity with it (not in the tsunami sense, at least not literally.) But what that something is, I won’t speculate on today. It is a pretty spring day and the ice is breaking. Also, I have food!