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Scientists warn of lack of vital phosphorus as biofuels raise demand

Leo Lewis, UK Times
Battered by soaring fertiliser prices and rioting rice farmers, the global food industry may also have to deal with a potentially catastrophic future shortage of phosphorus, scientists say.

Researchers in Australia, Europe and the United States have given warning that the element, which is essential to all living things, is at the heart of modern farming and has no synthetic alternative, is being mined, used and wasted as never before.

Massive inefficiencies in the “farm-to-fork” processing of food and the soaring appetite for meat and dairy produce across Asia is stoking demand for phosphorus faster and further than anyone had predicted. “Peak phosphorus”, say scientists, could hit the world in just 30 years. Crop-based biofuels, whose production methods and usage suck phosphorus out of the agricultural system in unprecedented volumes, have, researchers in Brazil say, made the problem many times worse. Already, India is running low on matches as factories run short of phosphorus; the Brazilian Government has spoken of a need to nationalise privately held mines that supply the fertiliser industry and Swedish scientists are busily redesigning toilets to separate and collect urine in an attempt to conserve the precious element.

Dana Cordell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney, said: “Quite simply, without phosphorus we cannot produce food. At current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years.
(23 June 2008)

Fertiliser shortage hits India’s farms

Shilpa Kannan, BBC India Business Report
… paddy farmer Ram Nivas Sehrawat, who works hard to grow rice crop out of his small plot of five acres just outside Delhi, is a worried man.

… This time of year it is essential for farmers to add diammonium phosphate (DAP) to their crops, but Mr Sehrawat has not been able to get hold of any.

“If I had used a fertiliser the plants would have grown much taller by now,” he says.

“I have been slaving in my nursery day and night pulling weeds out by my hand. With a fertiliser my crops would have been healthy enough to stave off weed infestation. You can’t really expect a big harvest without any fertiliser. My production will be down by at least 50%.”

…India consumes millions of tonnes of fertiliser each year. Production costs have risen on the back of soaring crude oil prices. Globally fertiliser rates have tripled in the last year. Prices of the three main fertilisers, nitrogen, potash and phosphate, have gone up by almost 300%.

Diammonium phosphate costs nearly $1,300 (£650) per tonne whereas farmers in India pay around $250. The Indian government subsidises the price by nearly 85% for farmers, which in turn means India’s subsidy bill is getting bigger each year.
(26 June 2008)

Food for Thought

Noelle Robbins, Alameda Sun (California)
Several weeks ago, I attended a remarkable presentation by Raj Patel author of Stuffed & Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Part of what was astounding was the number people who arrived, cramming themselves into a small bookstore – literally from floor to ceiling, wall to wall – to hear Patel expound on the challenges threatening the world’s food supply. The audience represented every age and ethnic group. And I am not sure any were ready to hear what Patel had to say.

First, he launched into a guilt-inducing description of the process that brings us our chocolate bars. The living conditions of most of the farmers who grow the cocoa beans, and the poor wages they make for their hard work. The depletion of the soil, the profits of the middlemen, the inclusion of ingredients that “keep food fresh on our shelves for a millennium.”

Believe me, there is no way to happily and innocently eat a Hershey Bar after his graphic description.

… When I was growing up my mother told us to clean our plates because children in China were starving. Not really a good rationale; but there are children and adults around the world starving at this very moment, and we do need to teach our children to appreciate, not waste, the healthy food they have access to.

Patel told his appreciative audience that part of the answer to our food system’s crisis is to raise new generations who really love food, and are willing to defend the sources and quality of our food. We need to reclaim our food culture from industry interests, so everyone on this planet can eat good, nutritious, safe, and satisfying food. Sounds good to me.
(27 June 2008)
Also at Common Dreams.

Energy farm experiment in Kentucky

Michael Bomford, blog, Energy Farms Network

Blog about energy and agriculture, with special coverage of an energy farm experiment.

Background (first post) (26 Oct 2007)

My name is Michael Bomford. I work for the Community Research Service at Kentucky State University, an historically black land grant university in Frankfort, Kentucky’s capitol city. My research focuses on developing sustainable organic agriculture systems suitable for adoption by small farmers. …

This summer my student, John Rodgers, conducted an energy farm experiment on organic land at the Kentucky State University Research and Demonstration farm.

We grew food and energy crops on either side of a solar-heated high tunnel used for year-round vegetable production without fossil fuel heat.

Our energy crops were sweet sorghum, sweet potato, corn, and Jerusalem artichoke. Each crop was grown in four plots, randomly assigned to locations throughout the energy garden.

… We’re fermenting subsamples from our harvest now, to see whether carbohydrate production translates into as much ethanol as we think it will.

John Rodgers will present our initial findings at the Kentucky Academy of Science meeting in early November.

John’s study this year is a preliminary to a four-year study, beginning next season, to examine the effect of farm scale on energy, labor, and land use efficiency of food and energy crop production.

We will grow sweet sorghum, corn, sweet potato, and soybean at three different scales:

1. Biointensive – using human labor and hand tools in small beds, according to the methods of John Jeavons

2. Market garden – using no machinery larger than a walk-behind tractor in medium-sized beds

3. Small farm – using standard four-wheeled tractors for crop production at the field scale.

The study will be conducted in cooperation with the Post Carbon Institute Energy Farms network.

The latest report (June 25, 2008)

… We direct-seeded corn, sweet sorghum and soybeans, and transplanted sweet potato slips. Planting and management is done entirely by hand in our ‘biointensive’ plots. Our ‘market garden’ plots use no machinery larger than a walk-behind tractor. Our ‘small farm’ plots are primarily managed with conventional 4-wheel tractors and attachments.

[VIDEO] The video shows some of our planting, transplanting, and management activities at each of the three farm scales in June. We have been able to use smaller tractors in the Small Farm plots now that the primary cultivation is complete. We are weeding these plots with a Farmall 130 tractor built in the late 1950s; all other weeding is conducted with wheel hoes, conventional hoes, or by hand-pulling. The planting and management phases, in June, required much less energy than the soil preparation phase, in May.
(25 June 2008 and 26 October 2007)
Photos and videos at the originals. Other postings on the subject at Michael Bomford.

Recommended by contributor Jason Bradford who writes:
The importance of this research in the context of peak oil is that modern agricultural methods have developed in the era of inexpensive fossil fuels with high net energy. As the net energy of fossil fuels becomes lower, agriculture will necessarily shift towards using more energy efficient methods. This research documents some of the tradeoffs between labor and non-human energy inputs, and may point towards methods that will be viable when labor becomes cheap and fossil fuels expensive.