Is Anaerobic Digestion Needed to Avoid Massive Famine?
Image credit: AgCert
Peak oil is a subject that has gained much traction (even inspiring some sexy if pessimistic dancing from Oily Cassandra). After all, it's hard to ignore the fact that our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels leaves us vulnerable to supply shortages or sudden price hikes. But it's less well known that we may face a simultaneous, and equally troubling shortage of another key resource—phosphorous. And without phosphorous, "peak food" might be close behind. You see while organic agriculture may have taken off in the last few years, the world's food systems remain ridiculously dependent on phosphorous fertilizers—many of which are mined from a limited number of sources that are expected to peak as early as 2030—just as the world needs to increase its food production dramatically to feed a growing population.
Lloyd has reported on peak phosphorous before, and I've even suggested a few partial solutions—from homemade bone meal fertilizer (an idea much derided by some commenters), to planting a placenta fruit tree. (Eating less meat would be a big help too.) But as with so many things, while individual action may make a dent in the problem, and make us feel better in the process, it will be how we collectively respond to the issue that decides whether a problem turns into a crisis.
That's why, according to the Guardian, Professor Brian Chambers, a leading UK soil scientist is urging the government to massively step up its investments in anaerobic digestion (AD)—a technology that takes food, agricultural and other organic wastes, converts them into phosphate-rich fertilizer, and produces biogas for energy in the process. (According to the article, It's thought that AD could supply up to 7% of the UK's renewable energy by 2020.)
There are currently 37 AD plants operating in the UK, with another 60 either under construction or at the planning stage. And with UK households now able to buy biogas for their homes, and British Airways even exploring Biogas as jet fuel, things are certainly moving in the right direction. But this is just a start, says Chambers:
"We're not doing it on grand enough scales - the technology and understanding is advanced enough to increase phosphate recycling. The longer infrastructure development is deferred and regulations suppress uptake - a real possibility in straitened economic times - the quicker we will consume our finite phosphate fertiliser supplies."
Now where did I put those chicken bones?