[VIEWPOINT]Balancing our needs with nature

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[VIEWPOINT]Balancing our needs with nature

There are always some twists and turns, but every spring we provide North Korea with fertilizer. It may seem strange to people who are fond of “pollution-free natural organic agricultural products” that North Korea asks for chemical fertilizers, which are known to damage the ecosystem. North Koreans might kill two birds with one stone if they adopted environmentally friendly farming methods as raising ducks and snails, which can also be served as food. Of course, North Korea is not asking for fertilizers because they are ignorant of such things.
All living things on the planet manage themselves as a part of a huge inter-dependent food chain. And its core, where everything appears to be eating and being eaten in nature, is the recycling of chemicals. In other words, all living things consume and use organic substances made by other living things. Crops used as food also need some food of their own. Our leftovers, human excrement or the corpses of dead animals, become natural compost that is food for our crops.
The problem is that such recycling is not perfect in nature. What could be valuable food for crops soaks into the ground, gets washed away to the sea or blows away in the wind. If such losses are not replenished appropriately, soil loses its fertility and the crops yield decreases. North Korea asks for environmentally damaging chemical fertilizers because such losses have become severe in the last few years.
Nitrogenous compounds that dissolves easily in water are especially problematic because they easily escape the cycle of the ecosystem. Nitrogen is essential for making proteins, which exquisitely control the chemical reactions of DNA and the living body. Of course there is an immense amount of nitrogen in the air, but most organisms cannot use it easily in this form because two nitrogen atoms are bound strongly in the atmosphere.
Fortunately, nature offers a solution to this problem ― bacteria that lives on the roots of beans and other plants, and lightning. Bacteria and lightning turn nitrogen in the air into natural fertilizer that can be used by many living things. It is the way of nature that has allowed so many living creatures to prosper on Earth until now.
Only a century ago, human beings had no choice but to practice environmentally friendly organic farming that depends on bacteria and lightning. When long distance maritime transportation became available, we shipped in potassium nitrate from Chile and used it as a natural fertilizer. Nitrate is a nitrogen compound made from the hardened remains of sea bird excrement found on seaside cliffs. Obviously there are limits to such efforts.
The recent trend of urbanization has aggravated the loss of valuable nitrogen, because such essential elements of city life like sewage processing and landfills obstruct the natural circulation of nitrogen. In other words, a comfortable and hygienic city life for people is actually a great burden for the natural ecosystem. We either have to pay the price ourselves, or come up with an innovative countermeasure.
A chemical fertilizer produced by a synthetic ammonia process was developed by German chemist Fritz Haber in 1918. We can freely use the nitrogen in the air thanks to Haber’s invention. However, too much of anything can be a problem. It is true that chemical fertilizers are good, but careless use of it can result in breaking the balance of our farmland and nature. Yet the idea that chemical fertilizers are all bad is not wise either. The important thing is to make wise choices and exercise restraint based on exact scientific knowledge.

* The writer is a professor of chemistry at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Lee Duck-hwan

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