Thursday, December 6, 2012

Peak fertilizer

Using natural gas as your source of energy, you can synthesise nitrogen right out of the air.  But you cannot synthesis the other two ingredients in the holy plant growing triad: phosphorous and potassium.
Oil, because we have used up so much of the stuff in the safe places to get to it, is now found in a variety of sometimes scary places.  Phosphate is less easily found, and all of it is one somewhat scary place.

Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, 28 November 2012

These two elements [, phosphorous and potassium,] 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…

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 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.


John D. Wheeler said...

Don't worry about potassium, it's fairly plentiful, unless you happen to live in an unfortunate location or are REALLY abusing your soil.

Phosphorus is quite a different story. Florida does have some decent supplies, if we don't let a few condos get in our way. But if we don't switch to a cyclical model, yeah, phosphorus is quite limited. In fact, somone calculated back in the 1970s that relative to how much we use in our bodies, phosphorus is the rarest element in the universe.

The one saving grace is that a great deal of phosphorus is locked up in the soil in forms plants can't absorb. With good organic management, enough of that can be coaxed out to grow decent crops, but not for long if it's just going to be flushed out to sea.

russell1200 said...

John: I would like to see how they plan to organically coax out enough phosphorus to feed 10 billion people.

John D. Wheeler said...

Whoops, I meant to say, "One saving grace for survivors of industrial collapse and die-off...." Yeah, I'm thinking 1 billion people at most, and that's if they recycle the nutrients from their waste back into the system.

russell1200 said...

John: Understood - highly qualified on the optomism.