Future Food Production Could Be Severely Constrained by a Lack of Phosphorus
We've all heard of "peak oil" before. But "peak phosphorus"? Buffeted by soaring global demand and rising commodity prices, scientists are sounding the alarm that we may begin to run out of the precious element, which lacks a synthetic alternative and is essential to modern agriculture, in 30 years, reports The Times' Leo Lewis.
Phosphorus levels worldwide at record lowsPhosphorus is being consumed, mined and wasted in quantities unheard of just a few years ago, say researchers from around the world. In countries like Brazil, where inefficient farming processes and heavy biofuel use have depleted phosphorus to record low levels, the problem has already become a crisis. The government is now discussing plans to nationalize remaining privately-held mines. India's factories are beginning to sputter as they run out of the precious element.
“Quite simply, without phosphorus we cannot produce food. At current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years," said Dana Cordell of Sydney's University of Technology. She questioned the narrow focus on water, warning that a concentrated global phosphorus supply made it a "much, much deeper concern."
Phosphorus: the next, next oil?The price of phosphate rock has soared by a whopping 700 percent -- to more than $367 a ton -- in the past 14 months alone. Morocco currently holds 32 percent of the world's remaining proven reserves; South Africa, Jordan, Syria, Russia and Western Sahara also hold significant stakes. The concentration of supply could create a new phosphorus cartel rivalling OPEC in its size and influence.
Reconsidering "renewable" biofuel production - and other potential solutionsThe larger concern is that resource-intensive biofuel production could speed up the crisis -- and make it much worse. The only solution, say experts, is to better manage existing reserves by reforming inefficient production methods, slow biofuel production and create an international agency tasked with the monitoring and recycling of the vital element.
Or, as Warren explored last year, extracting phosphorus from our urine, as the Swedes are doing right now. It may not sound very appealing, but it may be our only hope.
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