"Peak Fertilizer" To Make Manure A Valuable Commodity

alpaca manure photo

Manure, runny. Image credit:USDA

Synthetic fertilizer is likely to become significantly more costly for US farmers. This trend will make manure a valuable commodity once again (as it was prior to the 1950s). There are two main reasons for the anticipated cost rise. 1.) Traditional US natural gas production has already gone 'past peak,' while natural gas is increasingly needed for producing electricity.* (Ammonia fertilizer is made from natural gas, remember.)

If a Federal climate bill is ever passed, the transition from coal- to gas-fired electricity will further increase the demand for natural gas. Regardless of climate action, however, cheap synthetic nitrogen fertilizer - something cash crop farmers in North America have counted on for over a half century - will gradually become less of a given in coming years. More on the closely related fertilizer phosphorus peak and overall societal impacts is presented below.

* 'Fracking' remains controversial; it has yet to demonstrated that best management practices (BMP's) needed to protect water quality and living systems will be cost effective for the gas industry.
2.) Phosphate mines also are "past peak" in North America - estimates of known, conventional reserves range from two to 6 decades worth of production. For background, see the Foreign Policy magazine article "Peak Phosphorus" and Lloyd's prescient 2009 post Are We Near Peak Phosphorus?
Poo pays.
There are several fairly obvious implications of more expensive chemical fertilizers. One of the more fascinating and plausible ones is that animal manure, particularly the large volumes of manure stored in concentrated animal feed lot (CAFO) lagoons, will increase greatly in value, to the point where it becomes a reliably profitable commodity rather than a waste no one wants.

The trend toward increasingly valuable manure is discussed in Why Farmers Are Flocking to Manure, recently published in The Atlantic. If I understand this correctly, today's sucessful organic farmers will become tomorrow's opinion leaders - the ones politicians will listen to.

If we run out of cheap sources of commercial fertilizer, there will be no way to avoid a precipitous decline in crop yields, no matter how rapidly farmers try to switch to organic methods. And as they switch, the demand for organic fertilizers will also rise precipitously.
Here are some other very plausible potential primary and secondary impacts of this trend. Order does not denote importance or chronological precedence.

  • Owners and operators will want cash crop acreage contiguous to their CAFO's, so that manure is cheap to use (no long haul shipping needed) and logistics easily integrated with overall operations.

  • The so-called 'green revolution' is ending. Developing nations will need to shift back to traditional crops and methods, but with modern organic production methods integrated as appropriate.

  • Organic farming will become more competitive; and banks will be more willing to give organic producers preferred rates.

  • Food will cost more.

  • Commercial composting, especially of organic solid waste (a.k.a. food waste), will become a valuable and profitable service for restaurant chains and waste management companies.

  • Secondary peak: the boom phase for corn ethanol produced purely for fuel is over. (Up to around 5%, by weight, of ethanol is added to gasoline primarily because it reduces tailpipe emissions of carbon monoxide. More ethanol than that (10% to 15%) in gasoline has simply been a way to buy farm state votes and up the profit margin for gasoline distributors.)

  • Farmers will argue even more strenuously against any Federal policy which would further increase the cost of fertilizer (including a carbon tax for example).

Speculative possible outcomes.

  • China, Russia, and India will negotiate food for fertilizer swaps.

  • Wall Street banksters will invest in poop, leading to a stinky bubble (already been done, in a metaphorical way).

  • Digested, municipal wastewater treatment plant sludge from cities will become a valuable commodity which governments can use as a revenue source. This would offer an incentive for cities to keep thepoop works working optimally and to preclude industry contributions of heavy metals and or waste pharmaceuticals, for example. Let's get that free market working!

More peak stuff.
Peak Everything: Eight Things We Are Running Out Of And Why ...
Sexy Dancing vs. Peak Oil: Oily Cassandra
Peak Copper

"Peak Fertilizer" To Make Manure A Valuable Commodity
Synthetic fertilizer is likely to become significantly more costly for US farmers. This trend will make manure a valuable commodity once again (as it was prior to the 1950s). There are two main reasons for the