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Phosphorus: Running low of an essential fertilizer?

The Why Files, University of Wisconsin
Your body contains about a kilogram of phosphorus, in your DNA, your bones, indeed, in virtually every cell. Plants are equally reliant on phosphorus, which along with nitrogen and potassium is one of the top three fertilizing elements.

A shortage of phosphorus in the soil, a problem that is particularly acute in Africa and Australia, is a major reason for low farm yields.

Phosphorus fertilizer comes from phosphate rock, of which 142 million tons was mined worldwide in 2006. Due to the soaring demand for phosphorus fertilizer, the price of one ton of diammonium phosphate (a fertilizer that also contains nitrogen) “jumped to $1,102 a ton from $393 a ton in the last year,” according to an April, 2008 report.

… Is the soaring price a temporary blip, or a sign that phosphorus rock is getting scarce? Given agriculture’s reliance on phosphorus, we were alarmed to read warnings of an impending phosphorus crisis from a research group headed by Stuart White, director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.
Losing the curve

The warnings of “peak phosphorus” echo the arguments over “peak oil,” which maintain that the important date in resource extraction is not when the resource is totally exhausted, but when its production peaks after about half of the resource is used up.

… We phoned Stephen Jasinski, the U.S. Geological Survey’s expert on phosphate supplies, who said known phosphate reserves will last at least 200 years at the current rate of consumption, and that “there are a lot of other resources that could be tapped, in national forests or offshore, if it came to that.” The recent price rises, he added, reflect short-term scarcity.

… None of this sounded like an emergency, but in the long term, phosphorus consumption must continue rising to feed a growing population that wants to eat more meat and burn more ethanol. And thus Jasinski acknowledges that the current rate of consumption is not a reliable indicator of how long phosphate supplies will last.
How urgent?

Furthermore, the peak analysis focuses on when production starts to decline, not when the last ton of phosphorus fertilizer is produced. So are Cordell and White on track in their forecast of peak phosphorus? Yes, Jasinski says. “The peak could happen around 2034; it seems possible, seems reasonable that we could see a decline, a drop-off, based on the reserve figures.”
(11 September 2008)
A thoughtful introduction. One sees how many similarities there are between peak oil and peak phosphorus. For example, there is the same distinction between peak production vs when the resource will “run out.” Also, there’s the same danger on relying on a handful of experts. Stephen Jasinski, the expert in this article, gives estimates that are much farther out than others i know about.

One section of a longer article: Shortages Loominjg. -BA

UK’s sodden farmers struggling with a changing climate

John Vidal, Guardian
… According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), 2008 was expected to be one of the best harvests ever, but it is now shaping up to be the worst in 40 years. Nearly a third of all wheat is still uncut and heavy harvesting machines have been barely able to get on to the sodden land for weeks. Thousands of acres of oil seed rape have been ploughed back into the ground, and the pea and outdoor-grown fruit crop harvests have been largely ruined. Meanwhile, potatoes and other root crops are in danger of rotting and UK honey harvest is expected to be half its usual size.

… Farmers say they have been hit by four things at the same time. The torrential, non stop rains have led to lower yields and quality; good harvests around the world this year have seen cereal prices dropping; and high fuel prices mean they are paying more to dry their crops. In addition, many have been unable to prepare the ground and plant seed for next year.

“The UK is the only country with all these problems”, says Rachael Gillbanks, an NFU spokeswoman in York.
(12 September 2008)

Lessons from Cuba / Employing Insect Farmers
Deconstructing Dinner via Global Public Media
Launching this episode, we travel to Cuba – a country that has over the past 10 years become of increasing interest to those around the world interested in more ecological models of producing food.

Contrary to the more voluntary means through which some North Americans have adopted and supported more energy efficient and ecological food choices, in 1989, Cubans had little choice. As a result of the Soviet collapse, Cubans were plunged into a situation whereby conventional models of farming had to be abandoned for more organic models.

Deconstructing Dinner correspondent Andrea Langlois traveled to Cuba where she met with Fernando Funes Monzoté – the son of one of the most recognized founders of the Cuban organic agriculture movement – Dr. Fernando Funes Sr.

His son has followed in his footsteps and is presently completing his Ph.D on more diversified mixed farming systems at the University of Matanzas.

As the past 17 years has proven to be a regeneration of more biodiverse and ecological food production in Cuba, there has, in tandem, also been an increase in the attention paid to biological systems. Just as the circumstances pushing Cuba to more ecological food production have too begun to impact us here in North America, the second half of today’s episode will introduce us to some of our smaller friends, who are, and will increasingly, become more important to the production of our food; insects.

In March 2008, Deconstructing Dinner recorded a workshop titled “Predator, Pollinator, Parasite”; hosted at the 2008 conference of the Certified Organic Associations of BC.

Guest biographies…
(21 August 2008, but just posted)