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 Scienceline.org 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.