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News Section: Opinion

And Now There's This to Worry About

Published Thursday, January 30, 2014 12:10 am

As if climate change, our energy woes and an impending world water shortage weren't enough to scare the daylights out of you, many scientists and agricultural researchers are beginning to worry about “peak phosphorus” and the idea that in the near future, we will not be able to mine enough of this non-renewable resource to meet global food demand.

Along with nitrogen and potassium, phosphorus forms what has been called the Holy Trinity of modern industrial agriculture. The mining of these resources has allowed Big Agra to replace traditional methods of farming, in which crops are rotated, with a process that allows them to recharge soil by dumping the spent minerals on it in the form of fertilizer.

Southwest Florida has a special relationship with phosphate mining that probably has many of you wondering why the industry's demise would be a bad thing, especially since the world got by just fine before cheap phosphate fertilizer caught on in the 1950's. But with global food supplies already too tight for comfort, a switch to alternatives would be a long and costly process. If, in the next few decades, phosphorus demand begins to outpace supply, food prices everywhere would soar and many parts of the world would likely experience massive food shortages and all of the political and social instability that go along with them.

It's also worth noting that Florida has relatively little phosphate reserves in the big picture, while the majority of what we do mine leaves the state, and much of it leaves the country (though the environmental devastation sticks around). Where is most of the world's phosphate rock? That's another scary question.

The bulk of high-grade phosphorus reserves (about 85 percent) are located under the Sahara Desert in Morocco – a desert kingdom in Northwest Africa. Legendary investor Jeremy Grantham famously called it "the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history." Grantham, who runs an environmental foundation, has drawn perhaps the most attention to the issue. While many have argued whether the situation is as dire as he thinks it is, the debate seems to be over how long before we run out, rather than if we will.

There are a variety of factors compounding the situation, including a growing world population, a drastic increase in global meat demand (because of feed crops, diets high in meat require the most phosphorus) and an increasing shift toward the industrial agriculture model throughout the world. Absent some sort of scientific discovery of a sustainable substitute, the world will at some point have to ween itself from the cheap fertilizer dichotomy, rely less on meat for food (which has also been shown to compound factors that promote climate change) and go back to practices like composting, crop rotation, etc.

Like I said, that will not be a painless process, and if other global issues are any indication, it will not be a well-organized long-term adjustment, but rather a panic-driven crisis model in which we begin to respond in a meaningful way only after nature's original fertilizer completely hits the fan. So far, the best proposed idea I could find was to figure out how to reuse one of the most phosphorus-rich substances known – urine.

Given that the timeline for a crisis makes it likely that the food supply will also be dealing with problems like the continuing desertification of historically-arid land and wide-scale consumption of freshwater sources at a rate of about 15 times that which they are returned through the water cycle, as well as patterns of increased drought, it begins to paint a pretty grim picture as to what the produce section will look like in just the time that today's toddlers are hitting their early thirties. I'd say that's some pretty grave food for thought.


Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.

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