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Are We Heading Toward Peak Fertilizer?

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- 2238 days ago -
what about peak phosphorus and potassium? These elements form two-thirds of the holy agricultural triumvirate of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (also known as NPK, from their respective markers in the periodic table).


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JL A (281)
Wednesday November 28, 2012, 12:26 pm

Mother Jones
Are We Heading Toward Peak Fertilizer?
The planet is running dangerously low on phosphorous and potassium. If we run out, growing crops will be impossible—at least the way we're growing them now.

By Tom Philpott | Wed Nov. 28, 2012 3:03 AM PST

You've heard of peak oil—the idea that the globe's easy-to-get-to petroleum reserves are largely cashed, and most of what's left is the hard stuff, buried in deep-sea deposits or tar sands. But what about peak phosphorus and potassium? These elements form two-thirds of the holy agricultural triumvirate of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (also known as NPK, from their respective markers in the periodic table). These nutrients, which are essential for plants to grow, are extracted from soil every time we harvest crops, and have to be replaced if farmland is to remain productive.

For most of agricultural history, successful farming has been about figuring out how to recycle these elements (although no one had identified them until the 19th century). That meant returning food waste, animal waste, and in some cases, human waste [1] to the soil. Early in the 20th century, we learned to mass produce N, P, and K—giving rise to the modern concept of fertilizer, and what's now known as industrial agriculture.

The N in NPK, nitrogen, can literally be synthesized from thin air, through a process developed in the early 20th century by the German chemist Fritz Haber. Our reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (as its known) carries its own vast array of problems—not least of which that making it requires an enormous amount of fossil energy. (I examined the dilemmas of synthetic N in a 2011 series at Grist.) [2] But phosphorous and potassium cannot be synthesized—they're found in significant amounts only in a few large deposits scattered across the planet, in the form, respectively, of phosphate rock and potash. After less than a century of industrial ag, we're starting to burn through them. In a column [3] in the November 14 Nature, the legendary investor Jeremy Grantham lays out why that's a problem:

These two elements cannot be made, cannot be substituted, are necessary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted. It’s a scary set of statements. Former Soviet states and Canada have more than 70% of the potash. Morocco has 85% of all high-grade phosphates. It is the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history.

What happens when these fertilizers run out is a question I can’t get satisfactorily answered and, believe me, I have tried. There seems to be only one conclusion: their use must be drastically reduced in the next 20-40 years or we will begin to starve.

Why listen to this guy? Grantham, cofounder and chief strategist for the Boston firm Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo, has avoided or at least foreseen every bubble from the Japanese equity/real estate craze of the '80s right up to our own real estate mania of the 2000s. Back in fall 2007, with the S&P 500 near all-time highs and months before the Bear Stearns nosedive, Grantham was publicly foretelling financial gloom and doom [4].

Grantham is also known for his real talk on climate change. The Nature piece I quoted focuses on that topic, and advises scientists to "be arrested (if necessary)," in order to inspire policy action on the climate crisis. And in a characteristically blunt November letter to his firm's investors [5], Grantham argued that "we should not unnecessarily ruin a pleasant and currently very serviceable planet just to maximize the short-term profits of energy companies and others." That's more clearly stated than you'll get from any high-profile Democratic pol—and this from a financial titan, no less.
The next time someone facilely insists that the "future of farms is industrial," ask what the plan is regarding phosphorous.

So, given his record of prescience and gift for getting to the heart of the matter, we should probably listen to Grantham when he says that our agricultural system is lurching toward collapse.

Of the two key fertilizers Grantham warns about, phosphorous is the more urgent. As Grantham notes, our friendly neighbor Canada sits on a vast potash stash. But phosphate rock is largely concentrated in Morocco—and not just anywhere in Morocco. It's in the country's Western Sahara region, on highly disputed land. In a superb 2011 piece [6] in Yale Environment 360, the environmental writer Fred Pearce explained:

The Western Sahara is an occupied territory. In 1976, when Spanish colonialists left, its neighbor Morocco invaded, and has held it ever since. Most observers believe the vast phosphate deposits were the major reason that Morocco took an interest. Whatever the truth, the Polisario Front, a rebel movement the UN recognizes as the rightful representatives of the territory, would like it back.

Given that a savvy investor like Grantham calls Morocco's phosphate holdings "the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history," you can bet that the Polisario Front isn't going to let the Moroccan government control it without a fight. In other words, a scarce mineral key to the future of industrial agriculture is concentrated on geopolitical fraught territory. As Pearce puts it, "If the people of Western Sahara ever resume their war to get their country back—or if the Arab Spring spreads and Morocco goes the way of Libya—then we may be adding phosphate fertilizer to the list of finite resources, such as water and land, that are constraining world food supplies sooner than we think."

Yet something tells me that peak phosphorous will continue to be an obscure topic. I've been writing about it since 2008 (see here [7], here [8], here [9], and here [10]). Foreign Policy ran a major piece [11] on it in 2010; 2011 brought Pearce's article as well as a profile [12]of Grantham in no less a forum than the New York Times Magazine, in which he talked up peak phosphorus at length. Even after all of that, I can think of few crucial issues as far from the center of public conversation than the phosphorus shortage. We've haven't really begun to face the problem of climate change; our reliance on mined phosphorus doesn't register at all. It's easy to ignore crises whose most dire consequences loom decades away.

But the next time someone facilely insists that the "future of farms is industrial," [13] ask what the plan is regarding phosphorous. Developing an agriculture that's ready for a phosphorous shortage means a massive focus on recycling the nutrients we take from the soil back into the soil—in other words, composting, not on a backyard level but rather on a society-wide scale. It also requires policies that give farmers incentives to build up organic matter in soil, so it holds in nutrients instead of letting them leach away (another massive [14] problem [15] stemming from our reliance on abundant NPK). Both of these solutions, of course, are specialties of organic agriculture.
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JL A (281)
Wednesday November 28, 2012, 1:24 pm
You are welcome Roger!

JL A (281)
Wednesday November 28, 2012, 2:34 pm
Thanks Brian for providing the parallel in simple language for those who may find technical scientific explanations challenging. You cannot currently send a star to Brian because you have done so within the last week.

Julie P (154)
Wednesday November 28, 2012, 3:19 pm
Thanks for posting this J.L. It is a vitally important issue that is not getting the required attention.

The Soil Association released an excellent report .called: "A rock and a hard place - Peak phosphorus and the threat to our food security" which clearly explains the issues surrounding the use of phophorus fertilization.The report is available online:

Here's a few excerpts from the report:

"Most fertiliser is produced by dissolving phosphate rock in sulphuric acid to produce phosphoric acid.
For each tonne of phosphate processed in this way, five tonnes of a by-product, phosphogypsum,
is produced, and due to the presence of naturally occurring uranium and radium in the phosphate
ore this is toxic and radioactive."

"The mining, production and trade of artificial fertilisers is dependent on cheap oil supplies. The mining of fertiliser ores and the production of fertilisers by chemical solubilisation and concentration is a very energy intensive process."

"The process of eutrophication, the enrichment of water by nutrients, is primarily caused by phosphorus in rivers and other fresh-waters. Eutrophication can lead to algae growth, disrupting normal ecosystem function by using up all the oxygen in water, and causing the death of other aquatic species, and affecting water quality."

Essentially we need to transition to building fertile soil using renewable resources (compost, manure, leaves i.e.waste), as is done in organic farming.

But not peat! Peat only grows about 1 mm yearly.

Peat bogs filter water, help mitigate the effects of flooding, provides homes for numerous species and:

" Perhaps the biggest contribution of peat bogs to a healthy environment is as “global coolers,” helping to fight climate change. As the mosses grow, they absorb carbon dioxide, which is locked up within the plant structure as the plants turn to peat. Scientists think these bogs contain more carbon than all the world’s tropical rainforests. But when the bogs are drained for peat extraction or otherwise disturbed, the peat starts to decompose and the carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere, where it acts as a potent greenhouse gas"

JL A (281)
Wednesday November 28, 2012, 3:37 pm
Thank you so much Julie! Your additional resources add so much to our understanding of the environmental consequences from reliance on fertilizer and the consequences of making fertilizer--I am sure there are many others besides me who never had put all the parts together in this way before. You cannot currently send a star to Julie because you have done so within the last week.

Kerrie G (116)
Friday November 30, 2012, 12:56 am
Noted, thanks.

Frans Badenhorst (582)
Friday November 30, 2012, 3:39 am
noted - very good post, thanks JL. I hate artificial fertilizers, try not to use it, use organic instead.....this is a very challenging subject because we just keep taking a LOT from this earth and we are giving back too little in terms of nutrients in the soil. Also, commercial irrigation projects (everything must grow FASTER to make more money sooner) washes the nutrients out of the soil much quicker...... not good. We are playing with fire....there is not a lot of topsoil (Topsoil is the upper, outermost layer of soil, usually the top 2 inches (5.1 cm) to 8 inches (20 cm). It has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms and is where most of the Earth's biological soil activity occurs.)..... and we are depleting and poisoning it...

David C (89)
Friday November 30, 2012, 8:47 am
noted, interesting.

JL A (281)
Friday November 30, 2012, 9:58 am
You are welcome Kerrie and Dave.
Thank you Frans for helping us all better understand the impacts on this issue with your explanation of soil cycles and related impacts. Sure wish I had a green star to send you, but they tell me it is too soon!

JL A (281)
Friday November 30, 2012, 7:07 pm
Glad you found it worthwhile Theodore.
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