Peak Phosphorus

Preface:  “Why worry about phosphate supplies? Won’t we find a substitute by then? Phosphate is the backbone of DNA and RNA. The universal energy “currency” within cells is based on the conversion of ATP to ADP, adenosine triphosphate and adenosine diphosphate. Our teeth and bones are made of the mineral apatite. Substitute that. The next element below phosphorous in the chemical periodic table is arsenic. Not a promising place to start” (Deffeyes 2005).

No other element can substitute and it can’t be synthesized.

Even if there’s lots of sun, water, and all other elements a crop needs, lack of phosphorus limits a plant or animal from using them. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that phosphorus is the most important limiting nutrient.

Recycling most of the phosphorus isn’t possible

Modern agriculture is practiced as if we had unlimited supplies.   Every truck load of food hauled from the farm to cities uses up phosphorus that will never return.  If society did go to the trouble of extracting phosphorus from urine and feces, how do you send it all back to all the places the imported food came from?  What little gets recycled now is sewage sludge dumped on nearby farms, where it accumulates, potentially over saturating the soil.

Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Carrington, D. 2019. Phosphate fertiliser ‘crisis’ threatens world food supply Use of essential rock phosphate has soared, but scientists fear it could run out within a few decades. The guardian.

Phosphorus is essential to agriculture, increasing yields up to 50%, with 80% of phosphorus used in fertilizers to grow crops, and much of the rest in animal feed.  At current rates of use, a lot of countries are set to run out of their domestic supply in the next generation, including the US, China and India. Morocco and the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara host by far the largest reserve, with China, Algeria and Syria the next biggest, together representing more than 80% of global rock phosphate.

Phosphate use has quadrupled in the last 50 years as the global population has grown and the date when it is estimated to run out gets closer with each new analysis of demand, with some scientists projecting that moment could come as soon as a few decades’ time.

A new study, published in the journal Frontiers of Agricultural Science and Engineering, states: “The continued supply of phosphate fertilisers that underpin global food production is an imminent crisis.”  It notes that an estimate of the remaining years of rock phosphate supply fell from 300 to 259 in just the last three years, as demand rose. “If the estimated remaining number of years supply continues to decline at this rate, it could be argued that all supplies will be exhausted by 2040,” the scientists wrote.

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How much phosphorus is left and what other risks are there?

Recent estimates of peak phosphorus are 2027 (Mohr) and 2033 (Craswell), but you can find dozens of estimates, The most optimistic estimates lead to phosphorus running out within 200 years (Cordell).

Morocco has 85% of the remaining reserves (mainly in the Western Sahara). Morocco is potentially unstable, as are these five nations with another five percent of reserves: China, Algeria, Syria, Jordan, and South Africa.

Also vulnerable are the nations that need to import nearly all of their phosphorus, such as Europe, Brazil, and India. The United States has about 25 years of phosphate reserves left.

Dary, Patrick, Phosphorus: is a paradigm shift required (Bardi 2014).

We can’t live without phosphorus: agriculture depends on it to enrich their soils. Phosphorus is second only to nitrogen as the most limiting element for plant growth.  Crop yields on 40% of the world’s arable land is limited by phosphorus availability (30). Nitrogen can be extracted from the air, but phosphorus can’t, it only exists in Earth’s crust, mainly phosphate rock converted to a soluble form for fertilizer, after which much of it is lost, 20% absorbed by plants the first years, some of it disappears in runoff, or locked in the soil in chemical forms plants can’t access.  Much of it is exported within food crops.

Production in the U.S. has been declining 4 to 5% a year since about 1980.

And like all minerals, if phosphorus ever gets very expensive, rising prices will cause a reduction in demand, and that eventually stops rising production.  Industry won’t extract resources so expensive they’re impossible to sell.  Consequently, there’s a limit to the low-grade resources the industry can exploit. Economists assume that technology will always come to the rescue, lower costs of extraction and restoring both demand and industry profits. But this is a leap of faith: technology has monetary and energy costs so there are limits to what it can do. So the phosphate rock production won’t end due to a lack of rock.  But since it depends on the energy derived from oil to extract, transform, and transport, when oil declines, it will too.

References

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Cho, Renee. 2013. Phosphorus: Essential to Life—Are We Running Out?

Cordell, D. et al. 2013. Phosphorus vulnerability: A qualitative framework for assessing the vulnerability of national and regional food systems to the multi-dimensional stressors of phosphorus scarcity. Global Environmental Change,  DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.11.005

Craswell, E.T. et al. 2010. Peak phosphorus—Implications for soil productivity and global food security. Paper read at the 19th World Congress of Soil Science, Soil Solutions for a Changing World, August 1-6, Brisbane, Australia.

Deffeyes, K.S. 2005. Beyond Oil, the view from Hubbert’s Peak. Hill & Wang.

Huva, A. 2013.  Much Ado about Phosphorus. ReadTheScience.com

Blodget, H. 4 Dec 2012. Henry Blodget. A Genius Investor Thinks Billions Of People Are Going To Starve To Death — Here’s Why. Business Insider.

Elser, J. 20 2010.  Peak Phosphorus. It’s an essential, if underappreciated component of our daily lives, and a key link in the global food chain. And it’s running out. Foreign Policy.

Faludi, J. 25 Dec 2007.  Your Stuff: If It Isn’t Grown, It Must Be Mined. WorldChanging

Mohr, S, et al. 2013. Projections of Future Phosphorus Production. Philica.

Vaccari, D. A. June 2009. Phosphorus: A Looming Crisis. This underappreciated resource–a key part of fertilizers–is still decades from running out. But we must act now to conserve it, or future agriculture will collapse. Scientific American.

Walan, P. et al. 2014. Phosphate rock production and depletion: Regional disaggregated modeling and global implications. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 93: 178-187.

Watson, A. J. December 23, 2016. Oceans on the edge of anoxia. Environmental crises can tip the ocean into O2 depletion. Science.

Woods, H. 3 Apr 2008. World’s phosphorus situation scares some scientists. The Coloradan.

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One Response to Peak Phosphorus

  1. Akkashat says:

    US finds ‘world-class’ phosphate in Iraq

    Nothing new the US found in 2011, as the operations of mining phosphate were up and running in Iraq, full-scale, since the 1980s.

    What “Rowsch Shaways, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, [has not] told the conference….” is that Natural Gas is needed to utilise phosphates in fertilizers, and Diesel to move the trains transporting the final product.

    Despite being no fuel, Phosphate can safely be considered in the “energy-mix” and it will always be governed by Liebig’s Law of Minimums – the constraint that’s not the Guardian nor Shaways have been telling their audience about.

    https://www.ft.com/content/a7b82096-d969-11e0-b52f-00144feabdc0

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebig%27s_law_of_the_minimum