Phear of Phosphorus: “We Will Begin to Starve.”

Not really the farmer's friend, synthetic agriculture is leading the way toward a crash. (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture photo/Flickr)

Not really the farmer’s friend, synthetic fertilizer is leading the way toward a crash. (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture photo/Flickr)

The declining amount of phosphorus left in the world illustrates perfectly a basic premise of Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age: that it’s too late to save all of us from the crash of the industrial age, but on the other hand any of us, in small groups, can escape the worst consequences by living sustainably. Industrial agriculture cannot survive without industrial supplies of mined phosphorus, of which a diverse, small family farm has no need whatsoever. It also illustrates other components of our situation: a mortal threat recognized by a small group of scientists with their hair on fire who are ridiculed by industry hacks and ignored by a public who could not find a way to care less. [Wait, don’t leave. I’m about to explain why you should care more.]

Phosphorus is an essential ingredient of all life, and of synthetic fertilizer. For the latter purpose it is mined from shockingly few deposits in the world, combined with manufactured nitrogen and mined potash (potassium), and dumped on industrial-farm fields all over the earth. As the American Scientist observed recently:

The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, led by Swedish and Australian scientists, estimates that the world’s readily available phosphorus supplies will be inadequate to meet agricultural demand within 30 to 40 years. Others predict shortages sooner or later. All seem to agree that phosphorus price increases seen recently on global markets will recur, and that they will likely hit farmers in the developing world hardest.

There’s a wild card in this hand, and it is that nearly 80 per cent of the world’s supply of phosphorus is located in one country — Morocco. Could something possibly go wrong with this prosperous and stable kingdom, something that would affect our ability to get phosphorus out? That is as silly and alarmist as suggesting that that sort of thing might happen to Algeria…Libya…Egypt…Syria…oh, never mind.

Leaving aside the possibility of a Moroccan Spring, one of the bluntest assessments of the risk comes from Jeremy Grantham, who runs one of the world’s largest hedge funds: use of phosphorus “must be drastically reduced in the next 20-40 years or we will begin to starve.” (This was, by the way, not a rant on some TV panel show, but an essay in the respected journal Science.)

Like everything else plundered from the bowels of the earth, phosphorus can be wrested out only by creating an environmental catastrophe. In Florida, where most US reserves are located, large chunks of landscape are obscured by mountains of phosphogypsum (what’s left when you’ve absconded with the phosphorus). This stuff is radioactive and laced with toxic heavy metals. No one seems to know what to do with it, so they make big piles. A billion metric tons are piled up in central Florida, 32 million more added every year.

Last month, Mr. Grantham shared his concern about phosphorus with a sitting-room-only crowd of 75 at Columbia University. A writer for NYU’s reported on the talk, and seemed miffed that “he offered no concrete ideas for how to address the looming phosphorus shortage through recycling or other innovative technologies.” Don’t you hate that? When guys go on and on about a problem with no promise that “innovative technologies” are going to make everything better?

The last laugh is this: any small, diverse, sustainable farm, with cows and horses and goats and chickens in residence, has at hand all the phosphorous it needs to fertilize its fields. It’s called manure. Worked for centuries.

See also: Peak Phosphorus; Worse than Peak Oil?; Top Hedge Fund Guy Sees Worsening Global Food Crisis

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12 Responses to Phear of Phosphorus: “We Will Begin to Starve.”

  1. Gary McMurtry says:

    The problem is not the organic farmer, it’s the ones using the inorganic fertilizer to “extend” the original organic method. They are in turn supporting large populations of humans that cannot be supported by the limited fertilizer recycling of the organic farmer. When the choice was made to use artificial fertilizers, the underlying, flawed assumption was they would always be in accessible, if not growing supply. The worldview of infinite resources on a finite planet was and still is wrong. Now, many decades down the road of “progress”, we are about to panic because some of those resources, critical ones like phosphorus and the oil energy needed to extract, process and transport it, are seen to be in short supply and will become more expensive for those who can still afford to use them.

  2. Michael says:

    Tom: excellent story on an aspect of food production little known to the public. I would love to see the reaction if it was aired on a mainstream TV news program or printed in the mainstream press.

  3. Auntiegrav says:

    “The opposite of consumption is not frugality. It is generosity.” -Raj Patel
    The fundamental flaw of human civilization is humanism. It is the belief that everything on the planet is here to serve the human ego. Civilization is a pyramid scheme based on this paradigm.
    Only when humans learn (intentionally or not) to give more than they take from the environment will they avoid extinction.

  4. bluemlein says:

    I’m aphraid your credibility rests upon a phoundation of improper English: if you can’t get the basic phacts straight how credible are you? rather than spreading unphounded phear, why don’t you read more broadly? for example – is very clear on the phact that phosphorus is a renewable substance. Phear mongering is not phunny and you ought to be very carephul about it.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Of course phosphorus, in the form of animal and human manure, is renewable. Industrial phosphorus — the ingredient of synthetic fertilizer — is not. The fear I am mongering is fear for the consequences of industrial agriculture, a fear that is very well founded.

  5. wisedum says:

    Problem here is the open loop system, not just with phosphorus but also with carbon (as in fossil fuels), nitrogen, water (as with waste water).

    Most of our phosphorus ends up in water treatment works and then is decanted into natural systems, causing all kinds of problems like algal blooms, dead zones, etc.

    If we treated our resources as precious and not as endless supplies, we would start to shift to a more sustainable system, close the loop and then shift toward never running out of resources.

    Those that say that it would be too expensive to recover phosphorus simply demonstrate an ignorance in common with that which drives our unsustainable and wasteful economic system. Fact is we do not pay the true price but the externalised price. If we include the externalities and recovery of the wasted phosphorus then we are at least starting to shift toward a more integrated system.

  6. lewis Cleverdon says:

    Tom – I’m afraid your faith in traditional farming providing small lifeboats is misplaced – not for shortage of phosphorous which with care and biochar and dung return can readily be managed on that scale.

    The problem is the destabilization of the climate, which is already pushing traditional farmers off the land from Mongolia to Angola to Syria to Wales to Nebraska to Peru – and is doing so this early in the curve of global warming.

    The problem of GW is soluble, but it will require a sea-change in the US policy of a Brinkmanship of Inaction with China – of which there is no sign at all thus far. From this perspective, the most frightening thing on the planet is not the limits of phosphorous supply but a Democrat president adopting the obstructionist policy of his Republican predecessor, while pretending that a minority denialist lobby have his hands tied.



  7. bluemlein says:

    Tom – I am with you 100% on that. Industrial agriculture is not a good idea, as the decades since the “Green Revolution” have proved.

    But you have to ensure that, when you are discussing the evil aspects of anything in which big business has a vested interest, you keep your facts free of glitches. The moment you say “The declining amount of phosphorus” you are giving BB and IA tools with which to discredit you.

    It is, as you indicate, industrially produced phosphorus that is a problem.

    Personally I would welcome a major change, in agriculture and a number of other industries. There are altogether too many billionnaires on the planet. Their riches are created on the backs of the third world, which is drawn into their webs and hooked into their processes so quickly that you miss it if you blink. And they are as good as enslaved because they can never afford to get out of it.

    Traditional farming, properly integrated with agricultural education
    and apprenticeships, and recycling, in the broader sense, will indeed save the developing nations and could do a lot for those of us who rely on food that is becoming progressively more strange and monstrous.

    As for global warming, don’t you suppose that reinstituting locally/regionally appropriate farming will help? the problems we are dealing with derive from that approach and its fallout, which you can see any day, anywhere in North America, as greengrocers are forced to throw out thousands of pounds of food (industrially produced, out of season, not bought because of shipping damage, lack of taste, etc.)

  8. J.R. says:

    “any of us, in small groups, can escape the worst consequences by living sustainably.”

    An absolutely false statement. Nobody can ‘escape the worst consequences’. Collapse of civilization will affect every single human on the planet in exactly the same way.

    “Living sustainably” is greatly misunderstood (and exaggerated). This would mean NO outside energy input not found locally (to include food, fuel, heat, cooling, water, transportation and shelter). No “deriviatives of oil” either (nothing made from the use of oil energy).

    Sustainable living would be a primitive existence, think “paleo” to truly understand the concept.

    Be careful what you read people – there are a great many false teachers out there who have no idea what they’re claiming.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      “Collapse of civilization will affect every single human on the planet in exactly the same way.” Really? The Old-Order Amish of Pennsylvania and the high-rise condo dwellers of Manhattan? Exactly?

      Your definition of sustainable living is spot on; it’s also the definition of how all of humanity lived for thousands of eons, until just recently. Some people don’t think “primitive” is a pejorative.

      Of course it is true that the New York condo dweller is not going to find food and escape the rising water, or the Las Vegas dweller find a source of water, by deciding at the onset of the great emergency to live sustainably. To live through what’s coming is possible if you look at the threat maps, find a location not likely to be submerged or desertified, buy enough land of sufficient quality to permit sustainable living, and start learning what it requires. Do it now.

  9. lewis Cleverdon says:

    Tom – while the crass and offensive comment by ‘JR’ is plainly uncalled for, with respect your response of choosing a retreat location with care simply doesn’t address the climatic threat now unfolding.

    There are maps of drought-probability available – e.g. the PDSI charts out of NCAR by Aigui Dai, but they have two pivotal shorcomings. Their granularity is of 60 mile squares IIRC, and they are projections of the average loss or gain of drought conditions for each decade.

    Within the average for a decade the range of ruinous extremes is potentially vast – far beyond anything that subsistence agriculture is going to survive.
    On top of which, in times of extreme food scarcity any enclaves of good harvests will face implacable pressures from surrounding unfed populations.

    Moreover, if we fail to adopt commensurate global mitigation of AGW, we are not looking merely at a difficult period, but at a progressive intensification of climate destabilization as the eight major feedbacks take over from our emissions. The fact that our CO2 emissions reside in the atmosphere for over a century means that even a societal collapse ending further outputs won’t halt their warming or its acceleration of the interactive feedbacks.

    It is for this reason that I suggest that there is no prospect of survival without overturning the US policy of the obstruction of a commensurate climate treaty. When people start to recognize that the motivation for that obstruction is not about defending the fossil lobby (that provides just 8% of US GDP), but is rather about imposing food shortages and civil unrest to break China’s regime and its bid for global economic dominance, then, maybe, people will start to focus pressure where it is needed – on the White House.

    Until then, meaning no offense whatsoever, proposing that there are personal safety solutions by getting a well chosen farm – are simply a distraction from that critical need for political change.

    All the best,


    • Tom Lewis says:

      A well-informed and thought-provoking comment. It has prodded me to the following thoughts:

      1. I make no attempt to “address the climatic threat.” As you obviously know, the effects of the pollution we have already committed will take centuries to play out. The whole world has known for some time what the emissions are doing, and the whole world’s emissions continue to increase. I thought we had a chance to address the threat when I first wrote about it in the 1980s, but it is far too late now.
      2. If you are right in saying that survival is impossible without immediate, substantive, worldwide political change, to the detriment of the profits of industry, then survival is impossible.
      3. I agree with the previous point if we mean survival of the industrial system. But if the assertion is that no human beings can survive what’s coming, I don’t agree. I view what’s coming not as an extinction event, but an evolutionary one. No extinction has ever been complete — we still have dinosaurs running around, we just call them chickens. Evolution operates when conditions change drastically, destroying the organisms that were once normal, and giving the advantage to the outliers.
      4. As to your grim view of future survivability, I cling to hope because the two things modern humans have always been wrong about are a) the amount of harm they are doing to the natural systems and b) the ability of the natural systems to recuperate. The best climate scientists have been pretty consistently wrong in their forecasts, underestimating the effects and speed of onset of climate change (the feedback loops you mention were not well understood until quite recently). It seems to me as likely that they are wrongly depicting the aftereffects.

      I take no offense whatsoever from being termed a distraction, I enjoy informed argument, but after 30 years in the political trenches I would submit that it is not possible to be a distraction from something that does not exist, i.e. the possibility of serious political change.