Peak Phosphorus

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Damnthematrix's picture
Damnthematrix
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 10 2008
Posts: 3998
Peak Phosphorus

Phosphorus Matters

Compost, Food Shortages, Soil Composition, Soil Conservation, Soil Erosion & Contamination — by Marcin Gerwin

Part One: Closing the Phosphorus Cycle

NOTE: I have gone on about this in other threads, but this actually comes up with the numbers, and much more.  MUST READ.  Go to the source for the entire read.

Matrix. 


Phosphate mine on Nauru island.
Currently part of it is reforested.
Photo: Jon Harald Søby

It might sound ridiculous, but for every container of bananas,
coffee, tea or cocoa imported, we should send back a shipment of a
fluffy, earth-like smelling compost. Why is that? With each container
of food we import nutrients taken up by plants from the soil. We import
calcium, potassium, magnesium, boron, iron, zinc, molybdenum, copper
and many others. One of the essential elements imported in food is
phosphorus. For every ton of bananas we import 0.3 kg of phosphorus,
for every ton of cocoa it’s 5 kg and for ton of coffee it’s 3.3 kg of
phosphorus. Tea is a bit more complicated, because the amount of
phosphorus depends on the origin of tea - for example in 1 ton of tea
leaves harvested in Sri Lanka there are some 3.5 kg of phosphorus,
while tea from South India contains 6.6 kg of phosphorus (1).

 

digg_url = http://permaculture.org.au/2009/01/14/phosphorus-matters/;
 
reddit_url="http://permaculture.org.au/2009/01/14/phosphorus-matters/"
Each
year some 13.5 million tons of bananas alone are exported around the
world (2), containing 4,000,000 kg of elemental phosphorus up taken by
the plants from tropical soils. And most of this phosphorus never comes
back to the soil it was removed from. Yes, but can’t the farmers
replace the nutrients lost using fertilizers? That’s what the
fertilizers are used for, are they not? Sure they can. Farmers can buy
a bag of ground phosphate rocks or guano (bird or bat droppings) or
even a bag of artificial fertilizer such as superphosphate if they
don’t farm organically. No problem. They can replace every kilogram of
phosphorus taken from the soil by plants and sent overseas with their
produce.


Phosphorus Molecules

So, why should we send compost back on ships? This would add extra
cost to the imported food and make it much more expensive! We should
start closing nutrients cycle soon, because the world reserves of
phosphate rocks, which are used for the production of phosphate
fertilizers, are declining. They can be depleted even this century

 

 

 

<AND>

 

 

 

 

Closing the nutrients cycle

Ideally
the same amount of nutrients that left the farm should come back to it.
To achieve this goal we should compost or ferment all residues from
farms, food processing plants and households and make them available
for farmers. And yes, we need to compost urine and feces as well. There
are many types of compost toilets, including the simplest sawdust
toilet to the commercial types with electric fans. If handled properly
they don’t smell badly and the final product of the compost toilet is
just a plain ordinary compost. It can be collected in the city in
special containers, standing along the curb near the containers for
recycling glass and plastics. Joseph Jenkins’ “Humanure Handbook” is a great resource on the subject.

All organic waste can be collected as a part of a municipality
recycling program and leftovers from the kitchen can be picked up
weekly from the separate curbside container. For backyard gardeners and
farmers who eat their own food there are many methods of composting to
choose from – buckets, triangle cages, compost tumblers, worm
composting, loose heaps or classic wooden containers. There are even
composters which can be kept directly in the kitchen without any
suspicious smells.

It seems also a good idea to extract carbon and hydrogen from the
food residues in the form of biogas which is primarily methane (CH4).
It can be used for cooking, heating, electricity generation or for
powering vehicles. The exciting thing about biogas is that we don’t
waste any of the minerals from the organic matter - carbon is taken by
plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide and hydrogen comes
from water. After fermentation process in a biodigester the organic
matter is still perfectly useful as a fertilizer.

If the resources of phosphate rocks become depleted this organic
waste recycling program will be crucial for farmers. They will be able
to buy or receive finished compost according to the amount of food they
sold. It may sound absurd, but the content of phosphorus or other
nutrients in crops may eventually be counted in the future, so that we
can determine how much compost the farmer should receive. Ideally local
food should be involved in this scheme to minimize transport needs. And
what about the food from overseas farms like coffee or tea? Well,
things get much more complicated here. Theoretically, we could exchange
nutrients in the form of food, so that for every kilogram of coffee
would send back wheat or barley with the equal content of phosphorus.
What farmers can do now is to bring compost from the cities, where
people eat imported food. The other option is sending compost back.
Hmm… Wouldn’t it be just perfect to have a village scale economy where
all nutrients would circulate without cars, trucks, cargo ships and
complex municipality programs?

<MORE> 

DurangoKid's picture
DurangoKid
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 25 2008
Posts: 174
Re: Peak Phosphorus

There is a phosphorus crisis in the works. I've read about it in several places. Heinberg makes mention of it in "Peak Everything". It's no joke. A large fraction of manufactured fertilizer is phosphorus and potasium. In a natural environment, these elements tend to stay put. In agriculture, they're constantly removed with the harvested biomass. The answer had traditionally been in manures, crop rotation, compost. Low energy methods of maintaining soil fertility. No obscene profits there. The corporate approach relies on the centralization of labor, materials, and most importantly, profits. To revamp our handling of sewage would be a monstrously huge task. For starters, the waste stream is a mix of all sorts of human and industrial waste. The first task is to segregate human and all other forms of waste. This means an approximate doubling of the sewerage infrastructure. Then we'd have to deal with the biologically active components of human waste such as drugs like hormones, antibiotics, etc. After the processing of this material, there's the transportation of millions of tons of the stuff back to the fields both in the US and where ever the food came from. There would also have to be the means to collect unsuitable household waste and some way to enforce regulations for proper disposal. Not an easy task. Then there's the question of where to get the water to use as the transport medium. By no means last, the energy required would more than double the amount we use to process sewage currently. And this is for countries that have the means to process their waste. The simple fact that we haven't been doing this on a societal scale when the chemistry clearly show that we should illustrates another failure of capitalism. Capital simply finds other higher returns in the form of cheap plastic toys from China, SUV's, wars of conquest, McDonalds, and James Howard Kunstler's pet peeve, cheese doodles. A society arranged on a human scale has to confront occasional unpleasantries such as a more scientific approach to how we take a dump. It comes down to a question of scale. We are rapidly approaching the time where huge mechanical contrivances to process our poop will no longer be feasable. The energy density of society will be too low for such enterprises. As society relocalizes it will be necessary to rethink how it is we compensate for the disruptions we cause in the local natural cycles of soil, forests, prarrie, oceans, rivers, lakes. Where there can be no more compensation, localities will "run down" and eventually fail. In the past, people simply moved on to greener pastures. Unfortunately, with over 6 billion humans walking around, most greener pastures are already spoken for. The hydrocarbon subsidy has allowed us to green-up our local pastures on the cheap and therefore sidestep the issue for as long as the hydrocarbons are cheap. It's inevitable that as localization increases, sustainable solutions to the problem of completing the cycle of agriculture will have to be found at the local level. I would suggest that localities adopt codes and ordinances to regulate the dry collection, transport, and processing of human waste. We'll need some engineering talent to come up with a low cost method that uses human or animal labor and local resources to solve the problem. That might be villages of apartment blocks with communal composting toilets. A team of municipal workers could collect the compost with a horse drawn cart and shovels. Perhaps this could all be under the department that also mines the local landfills for all the neat stuff we deemed fit only for disposal.

Ruhh's picture
Ruhh
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 12 2008
Posts: 259
Mines of the future.

So many natural cycles have been broken that something has gotta give.

I'm only 30 and you can call me naive but if I had a lot of money I think I would invest in the land that used to be old garbage dumps and expect to cash in on those in about 30-50 years. My feelings are that once we start to hit 'peak everything' we're going to have to go back to where we wasted so much for so long.

On the same note I would also invest in research on creating fuel out of recycled plastics and how to make that technology as clean as possible. Hell, if we're going to hit peak oil why not make use of some of the stuff we didn't burn that's still lying around as plastics. I would also invest in soil reclamation/decontamination research.

I would do this on a few assumptions. First I think that there is so much garbage that will be worth digging up (mined) to be recycled (smelted). I will also assume that by then we'll be finding techno fixes (if invested as mentioned above) on how to be more innovative and efficient about recycling and soil reclamation/decontamination.

Just think of how rich those properties would be with all the crappy consumer goods we've been sending to landfills because our retarded systems make it cheaper and more convenient and socially acceptable to trash everything rather than consider the 3 Rs. Think of all the glass, think all kinds of metals, think compost from all the food waste. I consider dumps future gold mines!

If the world could spend some serious time and thought on finding ways to close the cycle of the materials we use(d) we could be looking at avoiding serious problems we will inevitably face on resource depletion. Maybe if we can find efficient and effective ways to manage these cycles which we are a major part of we won't have to deal with inevitable and horrible means of natural or unnatural population control.

We seem to have forgotten about the natural cycles because they haven't been convenient. It's time to start thinking about long term survival of our species (and others) beyond the current environmental movement surrounding Climate Change and/or Global Warming. If only the governments could inject trillions into that!

Pandabonium's picture
Pandabonium
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 30 2008
Posts: 87
Re: Mines of the future.
Ruhh wrote:

why not make use of some of the stuff we didn't burn that's still lying around as plastics. I would also invest in soil reclamation/decontamination research.

I would do this on a few assumptions. First I think that there is so much garbage that will be worth digging up (mined) to be recycled (smelted). I will also assume that by then we'll be finding techno fixes (if invested as mentioned above) on how to be more innovative and efficient about recycling and soil reclamation/decontamination.

Just think of how rich those properties would be with all the crappy consumer goods we've been sending to landfills because our retarded systems make it cheaper and more convenient and socially acceptable to trash everything rather than consider the 3 Rs. Think of all the glass, think all kinds of metals, think compost from all the food waste. I consider dumps future gold mines!

 

Ruhh, the problem with recycling - even before something ends up in a land fill - and especially with digging up already burried stuff is energy.  Even for things that make it ecocomically feasable- ie you get paid enough to cover the cost of digging it up and transforming into something useful- the real test is EROEI, the energy return on energy invested.  To go after plastics may never meet either criteria, so the thing to do is to stop using them in the first place.

The other issue with recycling is that it is only sustainable in a situation where use is declining.  There is always some loss in the system.  At present the loss is enormous, even in the most recycled of products such as PET bottles.  

So while I totally agree with you that we need to keep the 3 Rs in mind, we also need to realize that it won't solve the whole problem, or even come close. 

 Cheers.

 

 

plato1965's picture
plato1965
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 18 2009
Posts: 615
Re: Peak Phosphorus

Peak phosphate

For example, our new report reveals that supplies of phosphate rock are running out faster than previously thought and that declining supplies and higher prices of phosphate are a new threat to global food security. ‘A rock and a hard place: Peak phosphorus and the threat to our food security’ highlights the urgent need for farming to become less reliant on phosphate rock-based fertiliser.

 http://www.soilassociation.org/Default.aspx?TabId=1259

 

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