top of page

How did we achieve per KG wheat production in less than 2 Seconds from 90 Seconds, and why plant-bas

Hi everyone - This is an interesting essay. The initial idea was to understand whether plant-based meats are really net CO2 -ve. And then my lack of understanding leads - 2500 word essay. I have used Chemistry and Math and painted a picture of the world keeping India in the centre. Let me know if this picture is communicated to you or not. :)

But before I start the actual part of the essay, I would like to brag about myself. (LOL, Sorry)I have observed a fascinating evolution in myself in the past 10 or 12 months. There was a time when I blindly followed folks - those who have achieved slightly higher in my comparison. But as I have gained knowledge (at least I believe :)) or started understanding the world, my inclination toward their intelligence has been diminishing over time.

I have been working on a framework - whom I should follow and learn from. And in that regard, sometimes I find myself in a paradoxical situation. Some folks have built successful businesses and have a wide/deep understanding. But when I listen to them, they sound energy draining - or this could be my fault. Here let me add a quote by Anne Frank: “How wonderful is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”.

I find it odd when someone talks about why India’s GDP per capita would not increase and highlight the specific reasons. This is odd because every chapter of History’s progress is about solving problems. This example revolves around one of the biggest Humanity Threats: Between 1800 to 1900, we doubled the earth’s population, and from 1900 to 2000 - the earth’s population quadrupled. Food is the first priority based on Morse Hierarchy. This means that even though you might not be interested much in knowing how the world evolved and produced 1 KG of wheat every 2 seconds from 90 seconds - you are directly or indirectly connected to its entire value layers.

In short, we can divide the life cycle of food into three parts: Production, Distribution, and Preparation. The Production circles around farmlands and farmers, Distribution circles around Supply Chain and Retail, and Preparation circles around cooking - in-house, Restaurants etc. The fact is, a significant number of innovations and progress were directly or indirectly associated with Food. Humans used the first version of money - barter - to exchange food. They started living in a tribe to hunt animals for food - Collaboration - because that made hunting easier. You see, we can’t change fundamentals. :)

I have written multiple examples on distribution - Retail and Supply Chain - but this example is from Production. In 2021, the world produced 9.4 billion tons (8.5*10^12KG) of Primary Crops (60% of the moon’s weight) and 337 million tons of meat. This might look impressive, but it was not the case, always - there was a time when narratives about world collapse due to hunger were floating across different parts. Today, we are in a position to feed the world's population - 8 billion. However, if we take the Indian scenario - the problem is spread across production and distribution.

India has 169.3 million hectares of farmland (The highest in the world) and above-average rainfall (thanks to the Himalayas). And still, wheat production per-Hectare is only 3.5 thousand KG (Less than China, the UK, Germany, USA etc.), same for rice: 2.7 thousand KG (Even less than Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam etc.). In India, average crop pre-harvest losses are 23% (3% for wheat and 50% for cotton) and post-harvest losses are 26.25% (High for perishable and low for non-perishables) - math indicates ~50% loss of the potential harvest each year.

In terms of export, India is the largest rice and 2nd largest wheat exporter in the world, and India has a good reputation for feeding the world. But one tweet caught my attention last week.

Even after exporting so much food, our import dependence is huge and unsustainable because of Fertilizer imports. And Rajiv suggested the potential solution - Zero Chemical Natural Farming. This is a Classic economist's problem. You must have come across an outcry about reducing our imports based on a single WHY, with no context of what and how? Of course, India has a ~$20 billion monthly trade deficit and the Central Bank reserve as of June 24 2022 is ~$526 billion (In Wikipedia it is still displaying $610 billion). At this rate, the value of INR would slip further, and the Central Bank might run out of reserve. But outcry of reducing imports with no context of What and How is not a sustainable solution.

We shall stick with fertilizer import. Frankly, there is nothing called “Zero Chemical Natural Farming”, the same way electric vehicles are not 100% CO2 free.

We are charging electric scooters on electricity generated by coal and fossil fuels.

Machines that build these scooters are powered by some form of energy - produced from coal and fossil fuels.

Here also, if the net is not positive - there is no point in switching to electric till we are not generating electricity from renewable sources to charge electric scooters or build the machines.

If we go one step further, renewable energy is not 100% CO2 free. The same framework - CO2 is being generated during the building, transporting, and installation of these renewable energy machines.

The button line is we can’t confirm anything just by looking at what is in front of us. I am not signalling I am a pessimist or a rational optimist. When it comes to optimism - I am irrational more about this throughout the essay. (I will not let you go, LOL)

Irrespective of the scenario, when I read such suggestions/solutions: A meme appears inside me. :)

Let’s come back to “Zero Chemical Natural Farming”, to understand why this is almost impossible, we need to start from zero. Also, this is the first essay, I have used Chemistry - I never thought Chemistry could be so much fun. If Physics can give us the idea about the fabrics of reality, Math can prove our approximation/assumptions, then Chemistry can help us understand how this world really works.

In ancient Egypt, only 1.3 people could be fed in 1 hectare (ha) of cultivated land. 3,500 years later, the number reached 2.5 people. This is equivalent to needing an area of 4,000 square meters to feed one person - equivalent to 6 tennis courts. The rates of 3 people per hectare were not achieved, until the 16th century (Only in a few parts of the world - Ming China). However, Europe remained below 2 people per hectare until the 18th century. Today, some 11 per cent (1.5 billion ha) of the world's land surface (13.4 billion ha) is used in crop production. If we had not innovated - more than 70% of the world population might have starved to death. In fact, a few economists predicted - a large population might starve to death in the late 20th or early 21st century (Seeing alarming exponential growth in the world population). But hey - we figured out the solution, and hence I am irrationally optimistic. (The muscle wala emoji).

What happened, and how we were able to solve the biggest humanity threat - Let’s understand this. :)

This is one of the best applications of the First Principle, and I had a lot of fun writing this. The ingredients that make agriculture possible are - solar radiation (specifically by the blue and red parts of the visible spectrum), Carbon dioxide, Water, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus.

On the exact process side: A multi-step sequence of chemical reactions, that combines the above ingredients - we call this photosynthesis - and produces new plant mass for grains, oil, sugar crops etc.

If you look closely, almost all the ingredients are available in abundance - enough solar radiation, water, CO2, Nitrogen (N2) etc. But the problem is naturally available Nitrogen in the environment is non-reactive, and without reactive Nitrogen, plants can't complete photosynthesis.

As industrialization took place, we moved towards modern farming and started using fungicides, herbicides and insecticides to minimize crop losses. But they are applied in relatively small quantities (just a fraction of a kilogram per hectare). But the fertilizers that supply the three essential plant's macronutrients - Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium - are needed in large quantities to ensure high crop yields. Out of three, it was easier to produce synthetic phosphorus and potassium. But it took a century to produce synthetic active Nitrogen (NH3 - Ammonia).

Every crop of high-yielding wheat, rice, as well as many vegetables, requires more than 100 to 200 kilograms of Nitrogen per hectare. And this makes synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers the most important ingredient in modern farming. This was a paradoxical situation because Nitrogen is available in great quantities - it is in every living cell, 80%.

  1. Chlorophyll - catalysts that power photosynthesis

  2. In the nucleic acids DNA and RNA - store and process all genetic information

  3. Amino acids - make up all the proteins required for the growth and maintenance of our tissues

But the unavailability of reactive Nitrogen was the bottleneck in high yield.

By Mass 96% of a human body is made of four Key elements: Oxygen (65%), carbon (18.5%), hydrogen (9.5%) and nitrogen (3.3%) and rest 4% is mostly metals - iron, zinc, calcium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, selenium etc.

Even though the atmosphere has 78% Nitrogen, food is the only source of Nitrogen and the rest of the metals in our body. Therefore agriculture needs Nitrogen in great quantities. This also proves a lot of fundamentals, no? - Why do we drink more than we eat? Why is milk enough for infants?

The real question is why can’t we take Nitrogen directly from the atmosphere like oxygen? It is mainly because Nitrogen, in the atmosphere, is available in a non-reactive molecule (N2). And before the invention of synthetic ammonia - a source of nitrogenous fertilizers - only a few natural processes could split the bond between the two nitrogen atoms and make the element reactive to form compounds.

Lightning (High temperature and Pressure) was one of the natural processes - breaking the bonds between Nitrogen atoms and producing NO2, which dissolved in rainwater and formed nitrates (NO3). This was one of the sources of nitrogenous fertilizers for forests, fields, and grasslands (WoW). But obviously, the natural input was too small to feed the earth’s growing population.

There are other natural sources of nitrogenous fertilizers - Animal & Human manure, Leguminous plants etc.

What lighting can do with tremendous temperature and pressure, an enzyme can do in normal conditions: It is produced by bacteria associated with the roots of Leguminous plants - pulses, Lentils, Peas, Broad beans, Chickpeas, Soybeans, Beans, Peanuts etc. And available freely in the soil or plants. As a result, leguminous food crops are able to provide (fix) their own nitrogen supply.

A small story. India's cropland is blessed with double cropping - crops can grow two times a year. I remember vividly: my dad used to say, he has cultivated rice and wheat for a few years continuously - he must harvest Sarso (One of the leguminous food crops) to keep the micronutrients of soils intact. Today, I know the Why! Also, most Indian farmers measure their farmland in Bigha.

Everything is good, but till the time we don't understand the +ve impacts in numbers by these leguminous food crops - it would be hard to imagine the actual benefits.

  • The energy required to produce 1 KG of wheat = Avg 5 Megajoules [You must trust me on this, detailed math would take multiple essays)

  • Wheat production per Hectare = 3000kg

  • The energy required to cultivate one Hectare of cropland = 15,000 Megajoules (5*3000)

  • Diesel-fuel capacity to contain energy = 36.9 megajoules/liter

  • Diesel fuel required to cultivate 1 Hectare crop land = 406 liter (15,000/36.9)

  • Co2 emission by diesel fuel per liter = 2.7KG

  • Co2 emission per Hectare cultivation = 1096 KG (2.7*406)

  • Nitrogen required for Cultivation of wheat per hectare = 150KG

  • The modern fertilizer capacity to contain Nitrogen = 50% (to simplify the math)

  • The energy required to produce 1 tonne of NH3 = 30 Gigajoules

  • Energy required to produce 1KG of NH3 = 300,00,000 joules = 30 megajoules = ~ 1 liter diesel (for simpler math)

  • CO2 emission per kg NH3 production = 1 liter of diesel = 2.7KG

  • 1 KG of modern fertilizer can provide = 1/2KG of Nitrogen

  • Amount of Modern fertilizer necessary to cultivate 1 hectare farmland = 300KG

This means 1 Hectare cultivation of leguminous food crops saves 300 litres of Diesel = INR 27,000

And reduce 810KG of CO2 emission. (OMG!)

If you are a private investor, and your thesis evolves around D2C or have an agritech business in your portfolio, you should invest in a plan-based meat startup. Provided founders exactly know - how they are going to reduce the cost? At the current price point - very few can afford to consume plant-based meat. The world's meat production contributes ~17% of the Global CO2 emissions. And leguminous plants are the key ingredients of plant-based meat. Plant-based meat would be a perfect synergy with your agri-tech startup. Let me make a conjecture: In the next 10 years, a minimum of 25% of meat will be plant-based meat. You can generate an invoice in the name of ZILA - if you are taking a decision after reading my essay ;) Or you can share/forward this essay to someone who might get benefited.

When I thought of writing this essay, this was the trigger, I wanted to understand whether plant-based meat has net -ve carbon emissions or if it is all fluke. People, it does and by a significant margin. Plant-based meat is one of the mediums to achieve Zero Carbon. If a startup can figure out meat, they might figure out the rest of the non-veg. This is not a winner takes all market. (I don’t have much knowledge about laboratory-based meat and hence can’t comment).

We are almost at the end of the essay. There are other natural sources of reactive Nitrogen - human and animal wastes are one of them. But, the problem is, these are laborious processes and contain very low Nitrogen. This is one of the reasons, after so much talk, none of these methods has been commercially viable.

This means there was only one method left - invent synthetic ammonia, and we did. In 1909, Fritz Harber invented synthetic ammonia, and the rapid commercialization started in 1913. But the initial use case was limited to the explosives (Please help me). The widespread application of nitrogenous fertilizers started after World War -2. Technically, the Green revolution was not possible without the discovery of synthesis ammonia.

The invention of synthetic ammonia allowed humans to produce a kg of wheat in less than 2 seconds from 90 seconds. (Wow) This is true across other grains and vegetable production.

The amount of Nitrogen used in agriculture to feed the world’s 8 billion people = 210 to 220 Megatons/Year. The below table can give you a clear picture.

There is no way, we can go back to natural farming and expect to feed the 8 billion world population. We are going to add 2 billion more in the next 30 years. This means: we must innovate, discover efficient processes, and produce more from the same croplands.

So, if India would like to reduce its fertilizer import - the ideal solution would be innovative efficient methods to produce more nitrogenous fertilizers. Here also, if the net is not positive - the cost of in-house production should be lower than the importing cost - importing is a better option.

Economists' outcry to minimize import dependency without considering the net +ve is an example of lazy thinking. Or at least a path to create net +ve in the fixed timeline.

This is the crux of everything: Startup/Institutions/State/Country

In my view, globalization has been one of the pillars of the world’s economic massive growth. And India should play with its strengths.

For example, if we remove all the political angels, the fact is: India has benefited from the economic growth of China. And when India will become the world's largest economy, if we execute well as a nation, the rest of the world will get benefited: that’s how progress propagates. I told you when it comes to optimism, I am irrational. If there are problems, we will write, we will speak in our heads multiple times, we will sleep over it, and we shall figure out the solution.

If India has the lowest women workforce participation and decreases, there would be multiple solutions. We don’t have those solutions right now, but hey, we will figure it out - Soon. I am repeating the same when it comes to problems and progress, I am irrationally optimistic.

Chaliye, ager achha laga to share/forward kijiye. Or ager man (heart) kare insabhi pe debate/discussion karene ka to boliye ga - sikhenge aapse, Thik Hai! :) [If you find this essay informative, please share/forward. And if you would like to discuss/debate on these topics, let me know - I will learn from you, OKAY! :)

Final Edit: 03-07-2022 at 03:30 PM


bottom of page