Another Food Supply Worry: Peak Phosphorus?

Some optimists on the agriculture front, such as Nobel prize winning economist Gary Becker, have argued that increasing the productivity of farming would solve the problem of skyrocketing grain and food commodity prices. Only roughly 30% of crop-raising is done according to advanced techniques; if much of the rest of the land under cultivation was brought to this level of output, the ag commodities crunch would be a thing of the past.

There’s a crucial flaw in this reasoning, however. Modern farming is sorely dependent on phosphorous-based fertilizers. And phosphorus is starting to run out.

From the Times Online:

Battered by soaring fertiliser prices and rioting rice farmers, the global food industry may also have to deal with a potentially catastrophic future shortage of phosphorus, scientists say.

Researchers in Australia, Europe and the United States have given warning that the element, which is essential to all living things, is at the heart of modern farming and has no synthetic alternative, is being mined, used and wasted as never before.

Massive inefficiencies in the “farm-to-fork” processing of food and the soaring appetite for meat and dairy produce across Asia is stoking demand for phosphorus faster and further than anyone had predicted. “Peak phosphorus”, say scientists, could hit the world in just 30 years. Crop-based biofuels, whose production methods and usage suck phosphorus out of the agricultural system in unprecedented volumes, have, researchers in Brazil say, made the problem many times worse. Already, India is running low on matches as factories run short of phosphorus; the Brazilian Government has spoken of a need to nationalise privately held mines that supply the fertiliser industry and Swedish scientists are busily redesigning toilets to separate and collect urine in an attempt to conserve the precious element.

Dana Cordell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney, said: “Quite simply, without phosphorus we cannot produce food. At current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years.

She added: “Phosphorus is as critical for all modern economies as water. If global water supply were as concentrated as global phosphorus supply, there would be much, much deeper concern. It is amazing that more attention is not being paid to ensuring phosphorus security.”

In the past 14 months, the price of the raw material – phosphate rock – has surged by more than 700 per cent to more than $367 (£185) per tonne. As well as putting pressure on food prices, some researchers believe that the risk of a future phosphorus shortage blows a hole in the concept of biofuels as a “renewable” source of energy. Ethanol is not truly renewable if the essential fundamental element is, in reality, growing more scarce, researchers say. Within a few decades, according to forecasts used by scientists at Linköping University, in Sweden, a “peak phosphorus” crunch could represent a serious threat to agriculture as global reserves of high-quality phosphate rock go into terminal decline.

Because supplies of phosphates suitable for mining are so limited, a new geopolitical map may be drawn around the remaining reserves – a dynamic that would give a sudden boost to the global importance of Morocco, which holds 32 per cent of the world’s proven reserves. Beyond Morocco, the world’s chief phosphorus reserves for export are concentrated in Western Sahara, South Africa, Jordan, Syria and Russia.

Natural distribution of phosphorus could create a small number of new “resource superpowers” with a pricing control over fertilisers that some suspect could end up rivalling Opec’s control over crude oil. The economic battle to secure phosphorus supply may already have begun. China, according to US Geological Survey estimates, has 13 billion tonnes of phosphate rock reserves and has started to guard them more carefully. Beijing has just imposed a 135 per cent tariff on phosphate rock exports to try to secure enough for its own farmers, alarming the fertiliser industry, as well as Western Europe and India, which are both entirely reliant on phosphorus imports. With America’s own phosphorus production down 20 per cent over the past three years, it has begun to ship phosphorus in from Morocco.

American projections suggest that global phosphorus demand could grow at 2.3 per cent annually just to feed the growing world population, an estimate that was made before the growth of biofuels.

Few observers hold out hope of a discovery of phosphorus large enough to meet the continued growth in demand. The ore itself takes millions of years to form, and the prospect of extracting phosphorus from the sea bed presents massive technological and financial challenges.

The answer, say crop scienctists, lies in better husbandry of phosphorus reserves: an effort that may require the creation of an international body to monitor the use and recycling of phosphorus.

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  1. Anonymous

    “….About three-quarters of the total phosphorus (in all of its chemical forms) used in the United States goes into fertilizers. Other important uses are as builders for detergents, nutrient supplements for animal feeds, water softeners, additives for foods and pharmaceuticals, coating agents for metal-surface treatment, additives in metallurgy, plasticizers, insecticides, and additives for petroleum products.

    Of the nearly 200 different phosphate minerals, only one, fluorapatite, Ca5F(PO4)3, is mined chiefly from large secondary deposits originating from the bones of dead creatures deposited on the bottom of prehistoric seas and from bird droppings on ancient rookeries…..”

    What is being pointed out is the depletion of soil/farmland nutrients which the U.S. was aware of in the 1930s. With poor quality foods and starvation one might expect a pandemic of some nature as people will not be able to maintain their health to fend off some deadly disease(s) in the future.

  2. ddt

    anyone here remember reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley?

    In the novel phosphorous is scarce and is harvested from cremated remains. It always stuck out in my mind as one of the odder predictions in science fiction, but I guess Huxley might have just been prescient.

  3. ddt

    I found this article really interesting, but after poking around a few phosphorus sites, it seems that it is alarmist and poorly researched. I call bullshit.

    There are phosphorus reserves all over the world that will easily last 100s of years and have yet to be touched, in Florida, Morrocco, Mongolia, China, Russia and many many other countries.

    The problem right now is not a shortage of phosphorus, but a shortage of infrastructure for mining, processing and transporting phosphorus to meet rapidly rising demand. There is plenty in the ground.

    Maybe one day it will be a problem, but right now America is still the world’s largest producer, and reserves throughout the world have yet to be developed, let alone depleted. Claiming peak phosphorus now is kind of like claiming that we were at peak oil the first time a well went dry in Texas, and before anyone had even bothered drilling in the middle east.

  4. François

    In this case as in a couple of other “so-genannte” shortages, the markets cope more with plentiful money supply than with scarce resources.

    The ability to deliver money supply has never been so great… It will take a couple of years for the average Joe and one’s Chinese counterpart to understand what monetary inflation means. But sure they will.

  5. Anonymous

    Ah yes,more phosphorus for our sweet Cola sugar drinks and more secondary osteoporosis from depleted calcium reserves that fail to buffer the acidity from this addictive trash!

    I hope everyone on wall street is sucking this stuff down as fast as possible in large quantities!

  6. gaddeswarup

    There is SRI which seems to be taking some hold in several countries:
    It is not a uniform method, labour intensive, at least to begin with, and has weed and pest problems. But it needs less fertilizer and water. IRRI does not seem to be enthusiastic about it, but combined trials are planned. Most seem to agree that it worked well in Madagascar.

  7. Dan Duncan

    Straight from the USGS:

    “U.S. phosphate rock production and use dropped to 40-year lows in 2006 owing to a combination of mine and fertilizer plant closures and lower export sales of phosphate fertilizers. China has surpassed the United States as the largest phosphate rock producer. Since late 2005, two phosphate rock mines and four fertilizer plants were closed permanently and one mine was temporarily closed. Additionally, the leading U.S. producer closed its four active mines for 1 month in 2006 to reduce inventories of phosphate rock. Because of the decreased level of phosphoric acid production in 2006, consumption of phosphate rock fell to a 30-year low. Domestic phosphate rock annual production capacity fell to under 35 million tons in 2006, the lowest level since 1969.”

    Closing plants to reduce inventories…while at the same time “we are running out of it”??

    Good night. I hope Xanax doesn’t have any traces of Phosphorus…or Nitrogen (another “worry”)…or Carbon (“not a carbon-based anti-anxiety pill!”)….hell, let’s just hope it isn’t comprised of any of the periodic elements…becaue we are going to need A LOT of it to calm all these frayed nerves.

  8. dearieme

    Last thing of an evening, gentlemen, pootle down the garden and pee on your compost heap. Easy peasy.

  9. stefanx

    The brilliant eco-philospher Paul Shepard (“Coming Home to the Pleistocene”) wrote an essay once called “The Corvidean Millennium; or, Letter from an Old Crow” where he pointed out how stupid humans were for burying their dead in caskets – which prevented the phosphorus in our bones from being recycled back into the environment.

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