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Peak Fertilizer?

Colleen Scherer, Cattle Network
The theory known as “Peak Oil” became popular a few years ago when mainstream media outlets caught on to the concept that there was a finite supply of crude oil in the earth and at some point production would reach past the pinnacle.

Today, a similar theory is being applied to the fertilizer industry: “Peak Fertilizer.” This concept is gaining strength in the agriculture industry and could have significant ramifications for the industry.

Like the “Peak Oil” theory, “Peak Fertilizer” theory is also based on reaching the pinnacle of the production curve.

In the past year, more stories and articles have been popping up claiming that the world is going to run out of phosphorus in the next 20 to 30 years. A recent blog said, “In 2007, Canadian physicist Patrick Dery attempted to apply M. King Hubbard’s work on peak oil to rock phosphate and came to the conclusion that world production actually peaked in 1989. Unlike gas and oil, there are no mineral substitutes for phosphorous. Without phosphorus, plants become ‘phosphorous limited,’ constraining production no matter how many other nutrients can be supplied.”

One could argue the shortage speculation is really an attempt to raise prices artificially by instilling fear into the market. Regardless of whether that is the intent or not, fear may be creeping into the ag industry’s consciousness. What’s interesting is that more often than not, it’s the environmental and “green” blogs that are writing about a coming fertilizer shortage. They are the same ones complaining that use of commercial fertilizer is degrading the environment.

So-called green groups are cleverly using the shortage concept as a way to push for a return to older methods of farming. Claiming that phosphate production is past peak in North America, they are making the push for a return to manure. They also claim that in a post-peak world, organic production will become more competitive, the “green revolution” will end—forcing developing nations to shift back to traditional crops and rotations, food will cost more and commercial composting will become valuable.

… So, regardless of whether fertilizer production has reached its global peak or not, fertilizer retailers will need to plan accordingly in the next five to 20 years to handle this dramatic change because what is certain is that fertilizer production in North America has already passed its peak.

Colleen Scherer is managing editor of AgProfessional
(3 January 2011)
The author refers to a study first published in Energy Bulletin: Peak Phosphorus. -BA

How Google is like bananas

Felix Salmon (blogger), Reuters
By weird coincidence, Whole Foods was sold out of bananas today, as the latest issue of the New Yorker arrived on newsstands with a great (but sadly paywalled) article about the way in which the world of bananas-for-export is threatened by something known as Tropical Race Four.

It turns out that the banana we all know and love — the Cavendish — is actually the second type of banana grown in enormous quantities and exported across Europe and North America. The first was the Gros Michel, which was wiped out by Tropical Race One; you might be saddened to hear that “to those who knew the Gros Michel the flavor of the Cavendish was lamentably bland.” Indeed, Chiquita was so sure that Americans would never switch to the Cavendish that they stuck with the Gros Michel for far too long, and lost dominance of the industry to Dole.

In both cases, the fact that the same species of banana is grown and eaten everywhere constitutes a serious tail risk, even if today’s desperate attempts to genetically modify a disease-resistant Cavendish bear fruit:

… This is exactly what I was talking about a year ago, in my post about Dan Barber, world hunger, and locavorism, when I talked about how monocultures are naturally prone to disastrous outbreaks of disease, and how a much more heterogeneous system of eating a variety of locally-grown foods is much more robust and equally capable of feeding the planet.

… The problems with monoculture aren’t purely agricultural, either. Anil Dash has a post up today about the decline of Google search quality, and diagnosing the problem as being that “Google has become a monoculture”; Alan Patrick quotes a commenter at Hacker News as saying that if search were more heterogeneous, spamsites would find it more costly to scam every site.
(X January 2011)
New Yorker article: We Have No Bananas:

ABSTRACT: A REPORTER AT LARGE about Tropical Race Four, a soil-borne fungus threatening Cavendish banana cultivation. More than a thousand kinds of banana can be found worldwide, but a variety called Cavendish, which a nineteenth-century British explorer happened upon in a household garden in southern China, represents ninety-nine per cent of the banana export market. The vast majority of banana varieties are not viable for international trade: their bunches are too small, or their skin is too thin, or their pulp is too bland. Although Cavendishes need pampering, they are the only variety that provides farmers with a high yield of palatable fruit that can endure overseas trips without ripening too quickly or bruising too easily.


Researchers find “alarming” decline in bumblebees

Maggie Fox, Reuters
Four previously abundant species of bumblebee are close to disappearing in the United States, researchers reported Monday in a study confirming that the agriculturally important bees are being affected worldwide.

They documented a 96 percent decline in the numbers of the four species, and said their range had shrunk by as much as 87 percent. As with honeybees, a pathogen is partly involved, but the researchers also found evidence of inbreeding caused by habitat loss.

… In recent years, experts have documented a disappearance of bees in what is widely called colony collapse disorder, blamed on many factors including parasites, fungi, stress, pesticides and viruses. But most studies have focused on honeybees.

Bumblebees are also important pollinators, Cameron said, but are far less studied. Bumblebees pollinate tomatoes, blueberries and cranberries, she noted.
(3 January 2011)
Suggest by Asher Miller of Post Carbon Institute who writes: “It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of this. Bees are literally key to our survival.”

Memories of the 1877-8 Chinese Famine

Fred Magdoff, Monthly Review
In November, Fred Magdoff traveled to Shanghai with his wife, Amy Demarest, to attend the Marxism and Ecological Civilization conference at Fudan University (see the Review of the Month in this issue). Here are some reflections from Fred about the conference, Shanghai, and China, past and present.

… A very good friend of ours came to the conference from Shanxi Province … He was a farmer and village leader during the Cultural Revolution and for many years has been an important agricultural scientist, breeding new varieties of wheat for growing in northern China. One of his current interests is to remind people of the terrible famines that struck China (as well as India and other locations) in the late nineteenth century. He told us that he heard stories about the famines from his grandfather.

For a full year, from spring of 1877 through spring of 1878—part of the era that Mike Davis discusses in his book Late Victorian Holocausts—there was no rain whatsoever. As he visited fields around the region, our friend kept an eye out for artifacts from the famine and found eight large stones carved in separate villages, describing what happened in the village during the famine. On average, in a society wracked by severe drought and weakened by integration into the system developed by Western imperialism, about 70 percent of the people died.

As they had done in India, the English industrial looms destroyed the Chinese cottage industry of spinning and weaving cotton as a source of income. Additional problems included the dwindling Chinese system of grain storage because of the financial stress of the Opium Wars, the growing trade deficits resulting from forced opium imports, the adoption by the Great Powers of the gold standard, as well as midcentury civil wars and floods. When disaster struck, even the use of cash (instead of stored grain) could not relieve the problem, because the available money couldn’t keep up with the vast price inflation—there just wasn’t enough locally available grain. The difficulty of transportation to the famine areas also made long-distance transport extremely expensive. Areas depopulated by deaths and migration at the time of the famines did not recover earlier population densities until the mid-twentieth century.

As we consider the prospects of a destabilized climate in the future, we should keep in mind that dramatic climate anomalies such as those of the late nineteenth century—like nothing that has occurred since—can devastate large regions of the world.
(January 2011 issue)