Squandering phosphorus

Farm At Height (DOF)

Photo by Sidney San Martin (Sidnicious) via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As a followup to yesterday’s post about how phosphorus and nitrogen (largely via farm runoff) contribute to aquatic dead zones, I thought I’d share a recent Mother Jones article from Tom Philpott. In it, he addresses an aspect of industrial agriculture I’d not previously considered. He writes,

Who cares about phosphorus? For starters, every living thing on Earth—including humans—since all the crops we eat depend on it to produce healthy cells. Until the mid-20th century, farmers maintained phosphorus levels in soil by composting plant waste or spreading phosphorus-rich manure. Then new mining and refining techniques gave rise to the modern phosphorus fertilizer industry—and farmers, particularly in the rich temperate zones of Europe and North America, quickly became hooked on quick, cheap, and easy phosphorus. Now the rest of the world is scrambling to catch up, and annual phosphorus demand is rising nearly twice as fast as the population….

[L]ike any mined material, phosphate rock is a finite resource, and there’s fierce debate about just how long our supply can last. “Peak phosphorus” doesn’t get a lot of buzz, but it should. In a recent essay in Nature, [Jeremy] Grantham, who also runs an environmental foundation, put the case bluntly: Our [phosphorus] use “must be drastically reduced in the next 20-40 years or we will begin to starve.”

For the full piece, which (as usual) has great embedded links and ends with additional links to related posts from Philpott, head here.

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