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Is Humanity Really Going to Starve to Death in Twenty Years Because We Will Have Run Out of Potash and Phosphorus Fertilizers?


Don’t believe everything you read. Even if it’s published by the respected journal “Nature”.

A week ago, my eyes about popped out of my head as I read the “World View” column in “Nature” featuring Jeremy Grantham:

Then there is the impending shortage of two fertilizers: phosphorus (phosphate) and potassium (potash). These two elements cannot be made, cannot be substituted, are necessary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted. It’s a scary set of statements. Former Soviet states and Canada have more than 70% of the potash. Morocco has 85% of all high-grade phosphates. It is the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history. What happens when these fertilizers run out is a question I can’t get satisfactorily answered and, believe me, I have tried. There seems to be only one conclusion: their use must be drastically reduced in the next 20–40 years or we will begin to starve.

If you don’t know who Jeremy Grantham is, he’s a British investor who is co-founder and chief strategist of GMO, a Boston-based asset management firm managing more than $97 billion. Recently, he’s taken on the subject of the future challenges of global agricultural production, and takes a rather dismal view. Readers love doom in agriculture, and his latest quarterly letters have gained him a devoted following. I’ve begged to differ with a few of his takes on issues as I’ve read these reports, but have kept silent, as I’m not paid to do what he does.

But, after I read the above quoted paragraph, I aborted everything I was doing that day to begin my rebuttal to this outrageous statement. My article was about half-done and that is the way it will stay, because I discovered that Tim Worstall over at Forbes had already written a superb response titled, “What Jeremy Grantham Gets Horribly, Horribly, Wrong About Resource Availability.” What he writes does not only apply to these two fertilizers, it applies to most element mining. He explains to us the difference between reserves and resources. If this is a subject that interests you, you must read Worstall’s writing.

The subject of phosphate and potash fertilizers is frequently mentioned in limits to growth circles as being a defining limit for our future survival. Like every issue when one digs deeper, this is not a simple subject. A current study which you might read about fertilizer reserves is “NPK – will there be enough plant nutrients to feed a world of 9 billions? Supply of and access to key nutrients NPK for fertilizers for feeding the world in 2050″, by Maria Blanco. She mentions the failure to see that the nature of reserves is dynamic.

The USGS publishes official updates on potash and phosphate rock reserves. Blanco, like Worstall, conclude that though there may be official stated reserves of these fertilizers of 300-400 years, they will last far beyond that.

Certainly, however, in the never-ending quest for the best farming methods, those which use less phosphate fertilizer, or reuse it, should be encouraged. That applies to all farming inputs.

To demonstrate the variability of this subject, the farm that I grew up on, and much of the soil in Nebraska doesn’t require potash fertilizer. Before farmers fertilize, they need to know what they lack by doing soil studies, and many fertilizers are overused today. A very interesting soils study which I covered previously also demonstrates the dynamic demand side by showing that some U.S. soils showed increased potassium levels after growing nutrient-hungry corn on them for many years, something that couldn’t be explained by the researchers. There is a reason that PhD’s are awarded to those serious about the study of soil chemistry and science.

We must remember the dynamic nature of soils due to their live inhabitants, too. Mycorrhizal fungus greatly amplifies the ability of plant roots to uptake and reuse phosphorus, for example. There are many other living micro-organisms in healthy soils which are also affecting the supply, balance, and uptake of nutrients by plants.

Farming practices and crop choices also affect which soil nutrients are required. Animal and human wastes and urines contain nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus and have the potential for recycling. The basic crop and livestock rotation practices of yester-year feed the soils naturally. Agroforestry is all about tree roots fixing nitrogen and potassium to better grow crops in the poor, depleted soils of Africa and elsewhere. Genetic technology holds hope for decreasing specific nutrients required for growing specific crops. And in industrial agriculture, precision agricultural methods are being used so that only the amount of nutrients needed are used, specific down to small areas within fields.

It’s not simple. As the Indigo Girls would say, “There’s more than one answer to these questions,” Jeremy.

12 Comments on "Is Humanity Really Going to Starve to Death in Twenty Years Because We Will Have Run Out of Potash and Phosphorus Fertilizers?"

  1. BillT on Fri, 23rd Nov 2012 3:04 pm 

    No, it is going to starve to death because we have run out of cheap oil.

    Add in the climate changes that are making deserts out of the world’s bread baskets and you have famine in huge amounts everywhere.

    Five billion plus gone by 2050…

  2. adamc18 on Fri, 23rd Nov 2012 4:52 pm 

    One of the main sources of fertilisers is recycled crop by-products such as corn stover and wheat straw. If they are seen as ‘waste’ which can be used as cheap biofuels, such as the straw-powered power station being built in Suffolk UK, even if the ash is considered an important fertiliser, the logistics of hauling it back to the land will be very costly. Traditional sustainable agriculture relies on mixed farming where the straw used for bedding animals during the Winter is then composted and spread back on the land.

  3. actioncjackson on Fri, 23rd Nov 2012 5:45 pm 

    Petro-agriculture is the foundation of our global economy and is the weak link when it comes to feeding an ever increasing world population, because it’s centralized and lacks diversity. I agree with Bill, billions to die, maybe this century.

  4. SilentRunning on Fri, 23rd Nov 2012 5:56 pm 

    If humanity had only one resource issue, and if society were willing to own up to the problem, there might be hope of a solution.

    But as it is, we have ever swelling population, peaking resources AND vested interests wanting to maintain the status quo who also control vast media machines, that constantly spew a “don’t worry, be happy” message.

    Under that set of circumstances, look for humanity to fall off a resource cliff that will kill off most – if not all – of us.

  5. autonomous on Fri, 23rd Nov 2012 8:41 pm 

    In other words, the cheap easily mined reserves of phosphorus will start to run out in 20-40 years. Even though there’s enough recoverable reserves of phosphorus to last for hundreds of years, the remaining reserves will require much more energy to extract per ton.

    Agricultural practices need to adapt in order to use phosphorus more efficiently and recover as much phosphorus as possible. Most likely, this will occur in 20-40 years when the price of phosphorus starts to skyrocket.

  6. Rick on Fri, 23rd Nov 2012 8:44 pm 

    Just to set the record straight. Small scale beyond organic farmers do not use fertilizer.

  7. Science sans conscience on Fri, 23rd Nov 2012 10:14 pm 

    BillT> Five billion plus gone by 2050…

    That is an excessive statement, Bill. We will certainly experience tremendous upheavals, but it’s not reasonable to assume mass die-off with current data. The planet can feed more than two billion people even without fertilizers and with little oil.

    Now, if you say by 2100, that’s another question… There is indeed no room at all for population growth.

  8. rollin on Sat, 24th Nov 2012 12:42 am 

    I guess those that believe in infinite growth also believe in the infinite ability to mine minerals. When the mineral is too dispersed or difficult to mine at a reasonable price, the mines never occur or shut down.
    Don’t worry, it’s a race between lack of fuel (can’t run the machinery or transport the material), and lack of water (can’t grow the food so who needs the minerals?).
    Do we even need phosphate and potash to farm? What did they do 500 or 1000 years ago? What do they do in the poorer parts of the world that can afford all that machinery and mineral inputs?

  9. BillT on Sat, 24th Nov 2012 3:18 am 

    Science … you don’t appear take into consideration the rest of the story: wars, climate change, collapse of the economy/financial system that moves food around the world, the disease that will follow famine, shrinking water supplies, etc. Yes, feeding that many MAY be possible in a perfect world, but then. we do not live in a perfect world, do we?

  10. Keith_McClary on Sat, 24th Nov 2012 4:30 am 

    Rollin said:
    “I guess those that believe in infinite growth also believe in the infinite ability to mine minerals.”

    The Forbes piece he cites says as much:

    “And by the time we start talking about a thousand or two years in the future then total elemental abundance is the correct number.”

  11. Kenz300 on Sun, 25th Nov 2012 4:33 pm 

    Too many people and too few resources.

    Access to family planning services needs to be available to all that want it.

  12. vaseline2008 on Sun, 25th Nov 2012 8:53 pm 

    No, the rich will survive. No problems here folks, let’s move right along. Next.

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