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mattbrowne's avatar

Feeding more than 8 billion people - how serious is the phosphorus depletion problem?

Asked by mattbrowne (31633points) July 17th, 2010

Phosphorus supplies are essential to farming and they affect agricultural output. Its increasing price and scarcity could change global agricultural patterns and the role of fertilizers.

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. Can we recycle efficiently it?

“From Kansas to China’s Sichuan province, farmers treat their fields with phosphorus-rich fertilizer to increase the yield of their crops. What happens next, however, receives relatively little attention. Large amounts of this resource are lost from farm fields, through soil erosion and runoff, and down swirling toilets.”

“Phosphorus is used extensively for a variety of key functions in all living things, including the construction of DNA and cell membranes. As it is relatively rare in the Earth’s crust, a lack of phosphorus is often the limiting factor in the growth of plants and algae. In humans, it plays an essential role in bone formation. Without a steady supply of this resource, global agricultural production will face a bottleneck, and humankind’s growing population will suffer a serious nutrition shortage. The world’s reliance on phosphorus is an unappreciated aspect of the Green Revolution, a series of agricultural innovations that made it possible to feed the approximately 4.2 billion-person increase in the global population since 1950.”

Any thoughts?

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15 Answers

HungryGuy's avatar

Hmmm, that could be serious. But most likely, it will result in gradually reduced crop output, and thus higher prices for certain food items. No resource just stops cold instantly, so there will be a gradual effect of its diminished supply.

On the bright side, science has always had a knack for developing a substitute for essential ingredients to civilization when the need is greatest, such as for example synthetic rubber in the 1940s when supplies of natural rubber ceased to be sufficient to meet the growing demand of civilization (and World War 2).

bob_'s avatar

It won’t be a problem whatsoever—if the guys at NASA are right about that solar shitstorm you were talking about the other day.

gailcalled's avatar

Soil depletion is common and worrisome information. So is the fact that most non-organic produce has much less nutrition now then, say, a tomato of 50 years ago.

Let’s stop making paper and wooden matches and use flint instead.

The articles (of which there are dozens) suggest “no-till” farming to prevent run-off.

mattbrowne's avatar

@bob_ – Come on, Bruce Willis will save us. Understanding the problem is the first stage of most descriptions of problem solving.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Canada has huge supplies of both Phosphorus and Potassium.
The rising demand is economically encouraging for our economy.
At the same time, we have enacted a total ban of the use of phosphorus in all laundry and detergent products.
Unless the USA invades Canada to obtain it, they may have to learn not to be so predatory in their international trade with Canada.

The USA have ripped off Canada for years over lumber despite signed agreements and international judgments against them. They have acted similarly in other areas of commodity trading.

These may just have to learn to play fair to obtain what their agro-business economy needs.

We are tired of being treated as mere hewers of wood and drawers of water.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence – Does Canada have more phosphorus than needed for its own population? If yes, on international markets the result would be asking for a high price in the context of an expected shortage. The US can make the Canadians very rich.

HungryGuy's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence – I see it as possibly a good thing that these chemicals may be becoming depleted. Household goods companies have brainwashed us all to believe that we need “laundry detergent” to clean our clothes, “dishwasher detergent” to clean our dishes, ammonia to clean our floors, etc., etc, when plain and simple baking soda and vinegar are perfectly capable cleaning agents for a wide range of applications.

SmoothEmeraldOasis's avatar

I just wanted to let you all know that I am learning as you are responding, so I hope that you don’t mind that from time to time I may ask for some clarification. Thanks in advance for allowing me to intrude.

mattbrowne's avatar

@SmoothEmeraldOasis – No problem at all :-)

SmoothEmeraldOasis's avatar

@mattbrowne do you mean in the soil?

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes. Available for mining.

SmoothEmeraldOasis's avatar

Oh!, where can I find additional information so that I am not so much in the dark and then I can contribute more to this discussion?

SmoothEmeraldOasis's avatar

@mattbrowne Thank you very much for the link.

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