Oh Oh! Phosphorus
The cover story of the January National Geographic is about how the global human population is about to hit 7 billion, and is rising.
And to feed them, monster agribusiness corporation Monsanto says we need to double food production in the next 40 years.
Some predict that there will be over 10 billion people by 2050, and perpetual wars and fighting over water and other necessities, making the earth unrecognizable to us, we of this age of ease.
On top of all this, a new issue is coming to light. One that I guess we should all have seen from a while back.
We are running out of Phosphorus.
This is a big problem! If phosphorus stocks go the way of the dodo (and they are, as our use is far from sustainable under the current farming practices that have propelled us forward since the Green Revolution), then we will not be able to grow anything from crops to cells!
Phosphorus is of central importance in modern agriculture, and is the P in the famous N-P-K fertilizer ratios. It is necessary in many cellular functions, including comprising the structural framework of DNA and RNA, being cellular energy as ATP, and making up the membranes that keep cellular processes compartmentalized and keeping weird stuff out. It is really, really important!
There once was a time when terrestrial phosphorus was recycled by composting (ie outdoor defecation) and by ploughing agricultural biomass back into the ground etc. However, now such practices are not, well, practiced. Some for the good, some for the bad. And so we are facing terrestrial phosphorus depletion.
This is the Phosphorus Cycle:
Note that phosphorus (P) comes only from deep rock and volcanic/earthquake activity, everything else is cycled. Unfortunately, we have disrupted some of this cycle!
However, while terrestrial systems and lakes etc are phosphorus limited, the ocean has tons of the stuff (actually, most of mineable phosphorus reserves we have came from the ocean in the form of seabird guano). So I guess the next step will be to try to mine the oceans of phosphorus, which might not be a bad thing considering how many problems we have created there with nutrient runoff in recent times!
Has anybody noticed how much we have been looking to the oceans to save us recently from our terrestrial blunders?
There is one other issue to this. As we try to move away from fossil fuel dependence, and towards energy independence and security, we have been hitching our hopes on renewable energy crops, be they algae, jatropha, corn etc. Without phosphorus this will not work. With dimishing phophorus, it will not be economically viable. What will we do then? I guess offshore algal farms that use marine phosphorus would work, but those systems have their own limitations!
And considering we are warring over oil now, I imagine we will be warring over phosphorus soon enough. Oil is ultimately a luxury, phosphorus is absolutely not.
Currently the major reserves of phosphorus are found in China, Russia, Morocco, and the US. But with peak phosphorus now expected in 30 years, and these reserves expected to be depleted in as little as 50 years (less than 30 for US supplies), with suppliers expected to begin hoarding supplies quite soon, and with escalating demand, when will this all start to go wrong?