Special section: Production/destruction in Latin America edited by Javiera Barandiarán and Casey Walsh

Nitrogen, science, and environmental change: the politics of the Green Revolution in Chile and the global nitrogen challenge



The widespread use of nitrogen (N) fertilizers during the second half of the 20th century radically transformed agricultural production and ecosystems on a global scale. Although the "N challenge" or the "N problem" has had limited public attention compared to biodiversity loss and climate change, scientists consider N pollution a leading ecological concern for the 21st century. Accordingly, a major challenge for scientists and policymakers around the world today is how to meet food production demands while also protecting the environment. Using Chile as a case study—one of the highest consumers of N fertilizer per hectare in the Americas—this article examines the transnational politics of production and destruction in this process of agricultural modernization. In the Cold War context, a transnational network of scientists, agencies, and authorities created an institutional framework for the transference of knowledge and technology in Chile during the 1960s. Paradoxically, as local and global reliance on N fertilizers increased, scientists were able to generate a narrative about the negative environmental effects of intensive N use and highlight the ecological limits of the Green Revolution. After 1973, however, this knowledge network suffered as a result of the Chilean government's anti-communist crackdown and adoption of market-based agricultural policies. Understanding this history of how politics shaped N consumption, science, and policy is critical to current efforts to create new of agricultural production on a regional and global scale.

Keywords: nitrogen, fertilizers, Green Revolution, Cold War, Chile, science, environment, policy, Global Nitrogen Challenge, agriculture, United States

How to Cite: San Martín, W. (2017) “Nitrogen, science, and environmental change: the politics of the Green Revolution in Chile and the global nitrogen challenge”, Journal of Political Ecology. 24(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/v24i1.20966