## Unearthing a GREENER FUTURE: How FOSSIL and Innovations in Farming are Shaping Tomorrow's Agriculture

We have dug fossil fuels out of the bowels of the earth, but we are now looking to the bowels of the earth for fossils to help us design cutting-edge technologies that reduce our ecological footprint. The history of life that is preserved in fossils is a history of technological innovations. Our modern era of technology may look to be the pinnacle of innovation, but ancient microbes were innovating on a far greater time scale. How microbes and science are now being used to improve traditional farming can have an impact on one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

From FOSSIL Fuels to Farming Innovations

Like so much remarkable human technology, the legacy of Fritz Haber and the Haber-Bosch process is a tale of both blessing and curse. Haber devised a method to synthesise ammonia from the nitrogen in the air – one of the great technological fixes of the 20th century, arguing that ‘With nitrogen as our raw material we can turn the whole of Germany into an English garden.’ The miracle turned into a partial curse because the method was too successful, and synthetic nitrogen fertilisers quickly became an integral part of industrial agriculture, a dependency akin to our addiction to fossil fuels.

The Environmental Cost of Nitrogen Fertilizers

But the application of these fertilisers has also increased agriculture’s contribution to global heating, with the greenhouse potential of emissions from nitrogen fertilisers being about 300 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. It’s like the problem of fossil fuels all over again. While giving us an incredible source of energy, we’ve slowly been burying the entire world in a cloud of greenhouse gas.

Navigating Towards Nitrogen Efficiency

The story, however, is looking up, like the gradual but important shift from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. New ways to use fertiliser more efficiently through microbial interventions are being proven to help stem the excess nitrogen plaguing modern agriculture.

Revitalizing Soil with Denitrifying Bacteria

Imagine if you could call in the biotechnological cavalry of nitrogen-respiring bacteria, and convert them back to innocent nitrogen gas. This would be grown outside the soil, and brought in to the system, where it can cut fertiliser gas emissions in half, reducing them by up to 95 per cent in some cases. Whether we’re talking about plants or microbes, this biotic legerdemain restores at least something resembling ecological balance to the soil. And it also reinforces the idea that the future of good farming needs to be built on healthy relationships between farming and living on the Earth.

Towards a Future of Reduced Emissions

Early experiments highlighting these bacteria point to a potential 60 per cent reduction in nitrous oxide emissions. This is an example of a wider story of sustainable innovation in which the lessons learned from our fossil-fuel past inform the designs of a more sustainable future.

FOSSIL-Less Farming: A Dream Within Reach?

With the community poised to make what could be revolutionary changes to farming, the parallel with our own shift away from dependence on fossil fuels towards more sustainable alternatives is striking. In the same way that the use of renewable energy is beginning to replace fossil fuels particularly through the intelligent use of new technologies, so the development of farming creates the hope of an energy-sustainable future for food production.

Understanding FOSSIL: The Bedrock of Our Journey

But as we trace the steps from our dependence on fossil fuels to carbon-neutral, or nearly carbon-neutral, agricultural practices, it increasingly appears that fossil has become something quite different from the conventional substance we automatically invoke when we use the word. Fossil is no longer just what it was – even minus the remnants of life found in a trench in a Pevère forest. It has become what humans can do, given the chance. If fossils captured the sun’s energy for us, they can now show us how to re-channel its power, generation after generation, until we finally make fossil the forgotten thing of the past.

To conclude, while we struggle with modern agriculture and environmental conservation, the fossil-fuel story – how it birthed the problem, and how it might likewise solve it – demonstrates that progress is never one-sided. Every ending becomes a new beginning, and every history lesson from the fossilised past is a waystation on the path to a better future.

Jun 02, 2024
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