What is peak phosphorus?

Just to start off I need to explain what exactly phosphorus is and how it can impact industrial agriculture in this country. 

Phosphorus is one of the three main nutrients used today in modern industrial agriculture.  Along with nitrogen and potassium the use of massive amounts of phosphorus is the main driver behind the green revolution that has shaped agriculture since the 1960's.  Without the massive inputs of fertilizers America and other industrial agriculture powers could not produce the food that they do.  The problem is phosphorus is relatively rare and according to leading researchers in the subject we could be running out in a little as 30-40 years from now.

Now peak phosphorus like peak oil for those that know what that is, is a projected peak and decline of a finite element or material.  As the world population has grown so has the demand for phosphorus over the years.  For example in 1850 the demand was only 1 Mt (P)/y and by 2012 it was 22 Mt (P)/y a rather large increase wouldn't  you say.[1]  Now the projections can very from 2030-2100 as to when peak phosphorus will occur.  The variability of the projections can be tied back into the numbers that are used to calculate the potential peak.  Excluding Morocco which is the major producer of phosphorus, the rest of the world will hit their peaks by 2030.  But when you include Morocco the estimates jump to around 2090 as when they will hit their peak.  Since the primary producer is Morocco we could be facing another situation where a vital resource is in the hands of a unstable nation that may not be able to meet global demand.      

Peak phosphorus is a disaster that is long and slow in the coming.  It is just like the story of the  frog in the pot of water.  If you throw a frog in pot of boiling water it will jump right back out.  But if you put a frog in a cool pot and slowly heat it up it wont even know its being cooked.    I hate to say it but we are the frog in this scenario.  Most people wont even know there is any issues till food prices start to skyrocket and shelves empty out of the basics that are produced on phosphorus fertilized fields.

Wheat Grown Using Phosphorus

Wheat Field
Credit: Public Domain

What can we do about it?

Like with any finite resources you can either find more somewhere else or when that fails, try to make what you have last a long as possible through conservative use and correct applications.  One of the biggest losses of nutrients is through water run off from suburban yards.  A lot of people want to blame farmers for this but most of them only fertilize as much as needed and not a pound more because fertilizer costs them a lot of money.  Now by correctly applying or by not applying any at all to lawns we could cut phosphorus demand down quite a bit.

All Natural GardenCredit: Personal PhotoAnother tactic you can use is by taking a look at where your food comes from.  If you can separate yourself as much as possible from industrial agriculture you can reduce phosphorus demands that way as well.  This can be done by growing your own organic garden or by shopping at local farmers markets that support organic agriculture.  Since organic growers are not allowed to use synthetic fertilizers they are a good source for food produced without excessive phosphorus.

Phosphorus like oil is a finite but incredibly useful mineral that we must husband and conserve to the best of our ability.  If we don't we could end up in a world with 12 billion people and only enough food to feed 3 billion.  This world of famine is one that those of us in the current generation will probably not have to face but our children and grandchildren will.  Think about that next time you are at the grocery store buying that bag of flour.