Published Jun 5 2009 by Energy Bulletin
Archived Jun 5 2009

Food & agriculture - June 5

by Staff

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Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply

David A. Vaccari, Scientific American
This underappreciated resource--a key component of fertilizers--is still decades from running out. But we must act now to conserve it, or future agriculture could collapse

  • Mining phosphorus for fertilizer is consuming the mineral faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. The U.S. may runout of its accessible domestic sources in a few decades, and few other countries have substantial reserves, which could also be depleted in about a century.

  • Excess phosphorus in waterways helps to feed algal blooms, which starve fish of oxygen, creating “dead zones.”
  • Reducing soil erosion and recycling phosphorus from farm and human waste could help make food production sustainable and prevent algal blooms.

... We obtain nitrogen from the air, but we must mine phosphorus and potassium. The world has enough potassium to last several centuries. But phosphorus is a different story. Readily available global supplies may start running out by the end of this century. By then our population may have reached a peak that some say is beyond what the planet can sustainably feed.

Moreover, trouble may surface much sooner. As last year’s oil price swings have shown, markets can tighten long before a given resource is anywhere near its end. And reserves of phosphorus are even less evenly distributed than oil’s, raising additional supply concerns. The U.S. is the world’s second-largest producer of phosphorus (after China), at 19 percent of the total, but 65 percent of that amount comes from a single source: pit mines near Tampa, Fla., which may not last more than a few decades. Meanwhile nearly 40 percent of global reserves are controlled by a single country, Morocco, sometimes referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of phosphorus.” Although Morocco is a stable, friendly nation, the imbalance makes phosphorus a geostrategic ticking time bomb.
(June 2009 issue)
You read it here FIRST at Energy Bulletin!

Author Vaccari doesn't make a distinction between "running out of phosphorus" and reaching peak production.

Phosphorus is a less tractable problem than even energy, for which there are multiple sources and many ways to reduce usage. Once easily mined phosophorous ore is gone, there is NO ALTERNATIVE. Yes, we can recycle to some extent, but there are always losses and there will be little new phosphorus to bring into the system.

Plants need N-P-K, and one of those nutrients is usually the limiting factor for an ecosystem. Nitrogen can be produced from the atmosphere, but not phosphorus.

So, if the population is at a level to require agriculture with added nutrients, which is likely even if populations are reduced, we will need phosphorus. In the 19th century, with a much lower populations, Europe experienced a shortage of nutrients.

I'm thinking that phosphorus is probably the limiting factor for human populations.


Revealed: The Bid to Corner World's Bluefin Tuna Market

Martin Hickman, The Independent/UK
Mitsubishi freezing fish to sell later as stock numbers plummet toward extinction
Japan's sprawling Mitsubishi conglomerate has cornered a 40 per cent share of the world market in bluefin tuna, one of the world's most endangered fish.

A corporation within the £170bn Mitsubishi empire is importing thousands of tonnes of the fish from Europe into Tokyo's premium fish markets, despite stocks plummeting towards extinction in the Mediterranean.

Bluefin tuna frozen at -60C now could be sold in several years' time for astronomical sums if Atlantic bluefin becomes commercially extinct as forecast, a result of the near free-for-all enjoyed by the tuna fleet.
(3 June 2009)
Free market-ideology carried to its logical conclusion, apparently? Time to bring in ecological economics, perhaps? KS

Bob Shaw: Have you hugged your bag of NPK and S today?

Bob Shaw ("totoneila"), DrumBeat, The Oil Drum
With [P]hosphorus, it is not only the 'change in expected flow', but also the 'quality of that flowrate'. Many people are not aware of the energy cost of beneficiation to high ratio, finished I-NPK products. Let me try and briefly explain:

If we used a narrow boundary analysis or viewpoint: We could just skip any raw ore processing to save energy, then move the raw ore to the global farmgates. The problem is that we would need to move 5-10 tons of raw ore for every finished product ton we currently move. Of course, if this were to occur, the Baltic Index would skyrocket and fuel would too.

But all the useless silt, cadmium, selenium, and radioactives would be moved to the topsoil, too--not good for the food chain. But the worst effect is that the plant uptake rate of P would be very slow because it would be much more diffuse in the soil plus not in a ready soluble form like what is found in DAP and other finished products.

A modern day, poor subsistence farmer backpacking Tlameme style raw P-ore would suddenly be making lots more round trips for a vastly reduced harvest yield. Once he got all this additional diffuse-P on his property, then he would have many more round trips to bring in the raw-K ores next. Non-Optimal to say the least, probably more efficient to go to full-on O-NPK recycling as this is already in mostly naturally superphosphated form. Recall my prior posts on urine, manures, and guanos.

Thus it is more economical overall [broad boundary analysis] to the entire I-NPK supply chain strategy to do a simple, 'first stage' wet process to the ore near the mine [same rule applies to K-mining too] to condense or concentrate the P. This creates the problem of giant residue piles as can be seen in Florida and elsewhere.

Again, by just using a narrow viewpoint: We could save even more energy if all the 'second stage' P & K chem-plants shut down and global shipping of Megatons of [S]ulfur and sulfuric acid halted too. Recall that 72% of all sulfur is directed into plant I-NPK + animal feed I-NPK + human-quality, high purity I-NPK food additives. We wouldn't need to have recovered-S from crude-refineries and natgas-processing facilities if we were also unconcerned about acid rain and poisonous S-fumes.

This second stage of I-NPK enrichment by S, plus Haber-Bosch N, and further condensing/combining into the many NPK-variations of finished products thus yields a further vast reduction in shipping costs to the farmgate and additionally allows more ideal matching to the topsoil sample and desired crop. Most S goes to making phosphoric acid to facilitate P-processing, but vast quantities are also used for 'second stage' K-processing, too, such as potassium sulphate:
(4 June 2009)
The post continues with a consideration of potash and other nutrients.

Bob Shaw is one of The Oil Drum's regular contributors on fertilizers. Unfortunately his work does not show up on search engines, since it is located in the Comments sections of TOD. -BA

Community Kitchens

Julia Levitt, WorldChanging
Collaborative solutions that will make our communities resilient in the 21st century don't need to wait for some version of the future, or conform to some outdated hippie ideal. Case in point: the community kitchen. This smart, practical program promotes local food security, not only by ensuring that participants have access to affordable food, but also by completing the picture -- giving people the time, equipment, guidance and assistance necessary to prepare healthy meals in a busy world.

Here's how it works: first, a community of people plans a menu. They work together, or elect an organizer, to procure food. Sometimes the members themselves simply divide the cost, enjoying the savings that come with purchasing food staples in bulk. Sometimes the group gathers donations, or makes use of food from local food banks or similar institutions. No matter where the food originates, however, one important detail sets the community kitchen apart from soup kitchens or other feeding programs: the practice of preparing and sharing food communally. The people who will eat the food are the same people who help to cook the food, and by those rules, all participants are equal.

One Kitchen in Action

I recently had the pleasure of joining the Rainier Valley Community Kitchen, which recently started here in Seattle.

... Food and Security

Community kitchens are also resilience-building institutions, contributing to the food security of a neighborhood or social group. Not only does the practice encourage new relationships and foster useful knowledge of basic cooking, nutritious meal planning and health safety, but also, it teaches very practical skills that protect participants in an emergency situation. "People who are involved with community kitchens become used to working with others in a way that is shared equally, and benefits everyone," says Collis. "Someone who is involved with a community kitchen would find it much easier to pull their neighbors in; they'll understand how to scale recipes to accommodate the larger group, and they'll have comfort in community organizing. It's a basic skill that dates back to people in the agricultural era of the 20s and 30s – they used to stretch their food all the time. When there's an earthquake, we might get so much food from the state, but if everyone pitches in and understands sharing, we can make the food last long enough to sustain ourselves."
(3 June 2009)
Interesting development, good story.

Don't understand the need to kick one's antecedents though:

>>> "conform to some outdated hippie ideal."

I think this is bad intellectual history. "Hippie" is not a good way to describe the period, since it involved many different groups - political, religious, lifestyle, etc. Many things were done then which are now re-surfacing. I partook in activities which could be considered as forshadowing Community Kitchens.

American consciousness has a black hole as far as the period of 65-75 is concerned. The period is much more complicated than the stereotypes -- and it has much to teach people interested in sustainability today. -BA

Fighting for the right to grow food in L.A.

Sara Barz, Grist
Just how much trouble can one community garden start? For starters, three years of court proceedings, two eviction notices, one assault charge, countless allegations of corruption, and $16 million worth of fundraising. Even with all the legal crap, the gardeners still had to pay for manure.

Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Garden,” tells the story of a 14-acre plot in Los Angeles that became a community garden in 1992, a community-building effort undertaken in the wake of the Rodney King riots. For 12 years, the South Central Farm operated in relative peace on city-owned property, providing lots for 347 predominantly Latino families, and laying claim to the title of “the largest community garden in the country.” Not bad for a city known more for its traffic congestion than its open spaces.

But in late 2003, in a closed-door session, the L.A. City Council sold the property to a real estate developer for $5 million. The buyer promptly posted eviction notices at the garden, effective in February 2004. But instead of packing it all in, the South Central Farmers decided to fight the property sale for their right to grow food in that space.
(29 May 2009)

Frugal foods

Anna Sowa, The Bulletin
Get more mileage and nourishment out of your food
When Certified Credit Counselor Linda Young cooks, she thinks of meat as a flavoring instead of the main course. This mind-set, she says, helps save her money on groceries. She also bulks up her meals with inexpensive protein sources, such as beans and quinoa, which are low-fat as well as low-cost.

Young’s practices prove that being a frugal foodie goes beyond being a loyal coupon-clipper and bargain shopper. You have to buy foods that will give you the most mileage in the kitchen.

And just because you are eating inexpensive food does not mean you are eating unhealthy food, Young is quick to point out.
(3 June 2009)