Togo_phosphates_mining
[Togo phosphates mining]

If you thought post-peak oil had generated media frenzy (and spawned endless sustainable design projects), there’s another, quieter crisis looming - post-peak phosphorous.

Phosphorus is at the heart of modern farming; an essential ingredient of agricultural fertilizers. It has no synthetic alternative and is being mined, used and wasted as never before. Inefficiencies in the processing of food and the soaring demand for meat and dairy produce across Asia is fueling demand for phosphorus faster than anyone had predicted.

[Global fertilizer use, 2007 via NYT]
[Global fertilizer use, 2007 via NYT]

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

Not only does the fluctuating price of the raw material - phosphate rock - impact food prices, but some researchers believe that the risk of future phosphorus shortages dismantles the idea of bio-fuels as a “renewable” source of energy.

Significant Phosphate reserves exist in only a few nations: Morocco holds 32 per cent of the world's proven reserves, with Western Sahara, South Africa, Jordan, Syria and Russia holding the other significant reserves. A new geopolitical map may be drawn around the remaining reserves - creating a small number of new “resource superpowers” with a pricing control over fertilisers that some suspect could end up rivaling OPEC's control over crude oil.

[global phosphate reserves]
[global phosphate reserves]

The economic battle to secure phosphorus supplies may already have begun. China apparently has 13 billion tonnes of phosphate rock reserves and has started to guard them more carefully, 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.

Few researchers hold out hope of a discovery of phosphorus large enough to meet the continued growth in demand. The ore takes millions of years to form, extracting phosphorus from the sea bed presents massive technological and financial challenges. The solution, say scientists, lies in better use of existing phosphorus reserves.

Ironically, excess phosphorous leaching into water supplies causes plant and algae blooms, killing water oxygen supplies and creating ‘dead zones’ in coastal waters.  Scientist such as Cordell are looking into recycling the millions of tons of phosphorus that originate in fertilizer or sewage and move to the seas each year would address the twin problems of pollution and shortage.

[Extracting one ton of phosphate in Florida leaves five tons of the waste. About 1 billion tons of waste, stored in these slightly-radioactive heaps.]
[Extracting one ton of phosphate produces five tons of the waste. Florida, a major producer, has approx. 1 billion tons of slightly-radioactive heaps, which form a significant state landform.]

Many sewage treatment districts recycle sewage sludge to farm fields, while the Swedish have developed a toilet which captures phosphorous-rich urine, stores it for use farm fertilizer.

Would post-peak agriculture be replaced by fields of fertilizer-efficient greenhouses, producing new technological landscapes. In the meantime, perhaps we are all shareholders of the new yellow gold?


COMMENTS / 11 COMMENTS

[...] read the blog, or get in contact. Post Peak Phospherous Infranet on post-peak phosphorous: Phosphorus is at the heart of modern farming; an essential ingredient of agricultural fertilizers. [...]

Super Colossal » Post Peak Phospherous added these pithy words on Jan 20 10 at 7:25 pm

[...] of any regional economy based on phosphorous production or application: read Infranet Lab on "peak phosphorous" and further background on "peak phosphorous" in this article by Melinda Burns (via [...]

the dead sea works - mammoth // building nothing out of something added these pithy words on Feb 15 10 at 11:07 am

[...] analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of the ice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists will examine the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and [...]

the foodprint project « the irresistible fleet of bicycles added these pithy words on Feb 18 10 at 1:38 pm

[...] analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of theice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists will examine the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and [...]

The FoodPrint Project | FOODWORTHY added these pithy words on Feb 26 10 at 1:45 pm

[...] analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of the ice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists will examine the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and [...]

Foodprint NYC | Tea and Letter added these pithy words on Feb 26 10 at 3:24 pm

[...] food futures. From their description, I'm almost certain it will include discussion of peak phosphorus, a clear environmental concern, and possibly more exciting than peak [...]

Tomorrow: Free Program on Food and the City | Upper Green Side added these pithy words on Feb 26 10 at 4:06 pm

[...] analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of the ice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists will examine the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and [...]

Joel Berg Speaks at Foodprint NYC « New York City Coalition Against Hunger Blog added these pithy words on Mar 15 10 at 9:37 am

[...] Peak Guano Through "catalytic innovation" humanity has lived through peak phosphorous [...]

Green Roofs, Bird Poop and the 5P | test title added these pithy words on Apr 08 10 at 3:48 pm

[...] analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of the ice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists will examine the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and [...]

New York added these pithy words on Jun 25 10 at 12:00 am

[...] analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of the ice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists will examine the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and [...]

Volume » Blog Archive » Foodprint NYC added these pithy words on Jul 26 12 at 4:46 am

I would love to live long enough to see what happens when we are out of all natural resources. Not water, of course. I wouldn"t wanna face that. But oil and phosphorus… what a challenge!

tennis tickets collector added these pithy words on Mar 10 10 at 10:39 am

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