Fertilizer crisis?

Phosphorus depletion could change the world for everyone

Phosphorus is one of the big three ingredients listed on most kinds of fertilizer. The first number is nitrogen, the second phosphorus, and the third is potassium.

Phosphorus is one of the big three ingredients listed on most kinds of fertilizer. The first number is nitrogen, the second phosphorus, and the third is potassium.

Humankind may be exhausting the supply of one of the important ingredients in fertilizer, undercutting the ability of humans to produce enough food.

Phosphorus is mined mostly for use in farm fertilizers, though it is used in thousands of products. It is responsible for increased yields in agriculture. Its loss would sharply reduce farm harvests.

In the past, Nevada has scarcely noticed phosphorus and its activities. “Phosphate fertilizer applications are also often beneficial on Nevada hay meadows,” reads a paper by several University of Nevada Cooperative Extension scholars.

Phosphorus has been so beneficial in farming that some say major population growth was made possible by the discovery of its usefulness and the technology to obtain it. “Just as with oil, human population growth was not possible until phosphorus deposits were found and inexpensive energy was available to extract, concentrate the ore into fertilizer, transport it to farms and add it to the soil,” wrote Australia’s University of New England scientist R.A. Lang. “Future generations ultimately will face problems in obtaining enough phosphorus to exist.”

Some scientists believe that “peak phosphorus” has already passed—that is, more than half of the Earth’s available supply has already been mined and the planet is now on the downhill side. Physicist Patrick Déry believes peak phosphorus for the United States was in 1988 and for the world was in 1989.

Those who believe peak phosphorus has already happened generally predict depletion in 50 to 130 years, but also say that the perils will begin long before that because once the peak is reached, extraction becomes more expensive and difficult, driving price—and the price has risen.

“While the exact timing may be disputed, it is clear that already the quality of remaining phosphate rock reserves is decreasing, and cheap fertilizers will be a thing of the past,” wrote scientists Stuart White and Dana Cordell of the University of Technology in Australia two years ago.

Patrick Zhang disagrees. He is research director at the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research and author of Beneficiation of Phosphates. He took his doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno and was previously a research engineer at Kappes, Cassiday & Associates in Sparks. He believes the supply of phosphorus is secure into the next century.

“According to some, the world’s phosphate reserves would have been depleted by the end of the past century,” he said. “The truth is that phosphorus production will not peak during this century or next. We should, of course, try our best to mine, process and manage the phosphate resources in a sustainable manner.”

Fortunately, the peak phosphorus debate is still being conducted in scientific circles and is not yet on the political radar. It is sheltered, so far, from distortions by those with non-scientific interests.

The politics are tricky. Most of the world supply is in China and Arabia. Many in the United States believe dependence on those parts of the world is already too great.

Humans have had difficulty feeding the Earth’s population since it exploded in the 20th century. Norman Borlaug, an agronomist whose findings helped spark the “green revolution,” won a Nobel Peace Prize for findings about wheat stalks that quintupled the amount of food that could be taken from the grain, saving nations like Pakistan and India and increasing wheat production world wide. But such discoveries still depend on phosphorus.

Chicago’s Cecil Adams, one of the few popular columnists who has noticed the phosphorus debate, has written of the stakes: “Without oil, uranium, or coal we’ll be short of energy, which is bad enough. But without phosphorus we’ll starve.”