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Phosphorus Apocalypse

Are we running out of phosphorus?

Phosphorus MineWorried that we’re facing the end of the world on December 21st as supposedly predicted by the Mayan Calendar and supported by mass marketers of survival gear? Your timid and easily-frightened Planet Natural Blogger says don’t bother. We have bigger, more reality-based problems to face. Of course, I’m talking about the exhaustion of the world’s supply of phosphorous fertilizer.

Every gardener worth her or his compost knows what phosphorus is. It’s the “P” in the N-P-K ratio. Plants need phosphorus for photosynthesis. It helps plants develop strong root systems, increases resistance and helps plants utilize CO2. It stimulates growth in the first part of a plant’s life and helps increase yields in their last stage. Its use over the last century is credited with fueling the so-called “green” revolution, the ability of commercial farming to feed the world’s exploding population. It’s also important to humans, necessary for respiration, metabolism and building strong bones. We get phosphorus from the fruits and vegetables we eat.

Phosphorus occurs naturally in most soils but is so fixed that only a small percentage of it can be utilized by plants. That’s why farmer have poured so much of it into their soils. It simply can’t be used in excess. Because of this, and the fact that it’s highly unavailable to plants in its natural form, much of the phosphorus spread on commercial farms is lost through erosion and runoff. Phosphorus that gets into water courses causes algae blooms which starve our lakes, streams and oceans of oxygen that plants and fish need (see Dead Zones). Now we learn that ground sources of phosphorus are running out.

The world’s phosphorous shortage is a serious problem but hasn’t gained the attention of, say, a prediction of apocalypse from an ancient calendar. Commercial agriculture uses some 17 million metric tons of phosphorus a year (2008 figures) and the numbers continue to climb. Now along comes respected investor Jeremy Grantham with an article in Business Insider that’s sure to catch attention: “A Genius Investor Thinks Billions of People Are Going To Starve To Death — Here’s Why.” Grantham is something of an economic seer, having predicted the popping of various commodity bubbles, and is known for observing economic reality with a cold eye. He thinks that, because of its exploding population, the world as we know it is doomed. Phosphorus shortages will play a big part.

We won’t go into the details, but the story outlines with charts and pictures the coming scarcity of mineable phosphorous, who controls it (if you think the 12 OPEC nations controlling world oil supplies are frightening, wait until you read about the nine countries who have most of the phosphorus) and what this will do — is already doing! — to the global price of food and fertilizer. Can you imagine wars in North Africa to control the supply of phosphorus?

In a sense, the planet won’t run out of phosphorus. Unlike oil, which breaks down and disappears as its burned, phosphorus isn’t destroyed. It just goes somewhere else: into our oceans, into living things from where it’s excreted. And therein lies a solution. Recycling animal waste or even our own, returns phosphorus to the place we want it; our fields and farms. Organic gardeners know this. We first suffered a phosphorus shortage some 150 years ago when the world found its supply of bird guano, used extensively as fertilizer in those days, disappearing. It wasn’t long after that we discovered how to make nitrogen — another major component of fertilizer — in mass quantity and, to compliment it, the mining of phosphorus began.

Organic gardeners often rely on sustainable sources of phosphorous. Bone meal, guano and fish fertilizer are all excellent sources of phosphorus. By composting, organic gardeners recycle phosphorus from the plants they’ve grown back to their gardens. Sure, we use rock phosphates as well. But because we recycle phosphorus and use it in more accessible forms, we know how to do without its mineral form (or use it only in special situations). These methods will hardly substitute for the amounts of phosphorus used by commercial farming. For that we’ll need to learn to safely harvest phosphorus from all available sources including human feces and urine. But it’s good to know that organic gardening techniques are pointing the way to stopping the coming apocalypse. Take that Mayan Calendar!

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One Response to “Phosphorus Apocalypse”

  1. Lex on February 20th, 2013 at 10:52 pm #

    Maybe we should stop pooping in water???

    That would seem to be the obvious place where the cycle is breaking down. It needs to go back in the earth!

    This was done in ancient times on an industrial scale. Serious article on this from Low Tech Magazine: Recycling animal and human dung is the key to sustainable farming (no affiliation).

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