Let's not be dramatic. Yes, we face the dread prospect of peak phosphorus. However, we're also looking at peak oil, peak uranium, peak coal — hell, even peak gallium, a metal used in electronics and solar cells that may have reached peak production eight years ago. The obvious question is, how much worse can things get?
Answer: a lot, maybe. Without oil, uranium, or coal we'll be short of energy, which is bad enough. But without phosphorus we'll starve.
Phosphorus is found in everything from matches to Coca-Cola, but more than 90 percent of the phosphorus we use goes to make fertilizer, where it's usually mixed with nitrogen and potassium. Phosphorus is a key component of DNA and cell structures and in plants plays an important role in leaf growth, yield, disease resistance, and overall maturity and health.
Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on fertilizer. Between 1919 and 1955, about a quarter of all improvement in U.S. crop yields was due to fertilizer. A UN study estimates every pound of fertilizer is responsible for about 10 pounds of cereal grain. You can fertilize with nitrogen and potassium alone, but at considerable cost to your harvest. Rice yields, for example, can fall off 15 percent if you skip phosphorus, and wheat and corn crops could decline even more. In much of the world people don't have enough to eat as it is; you can imagine the disaster if key crops drop by a sixth.
Now for the bad news: the U.S. produces a bit more than 27 million tons per year of phosphate rock, the primary source of phosphorus, and has reserves of about 1.1 billion tons. That means we'll run out in 40 years. Worldwide the situation is a little better, with about 160 million tons of annual production and 16 billion tons of reserves, enough for 100 years. While that sounds like a decent margin, the global peak, after which production can no longer keep up with demand, may be less than 30 years away.Another problem is that most of the planet's readily obtainable phosphorus supply is in Morocco (which sits onmore than a third of proven worldwide reserves), Western Sahara, China, Jordan, and South Africa. Tradewise we're already in hock to the Arab countries and China, and phosphorus dependency will only make things worse. Even now China is imposing tariffs on its phosphorus to discourage exports. Spot phosphorus shortages have caused wild swings in price — during 2009, for example, phosphate rock sold for anywhere from ¥582.65 () to ¥2,913.26 () per ton.
Are we looking at phosphorus wars? Let's just say we may see some strategic initiatives, if history's any guide. The quest for fertilizer was behind an American land grab beginning 150 years ago, when the Guano Islands Act of 1856 empowered U.S. sailors to seize islands around the world for their deposits of nitrogen-rich bird and bat guano.
Peak phosphorus is the point in time at which the maximum global phosphorus production rate is reached. Phosphorus is the chemical backbone of DNA. Every cell, every plant, every living thing, needs phosphorus to survive and grow. Each of us is full of it, so much so that phosphorus was first discovered back in 1669 when a German alchemist distilled it from 50 buckets of human urine. In the last two years there has been a raging debate about this (and others) reaching peak levels and running out. Or not according to debunking-peak-phosphorus
P” is for phosphorus, the stuff of life, and “p” is for “peak phosphorus” by 2030, ecologists say, unless — presto! — pee can be turned into gold through modern-day alchemy. Yes, your pee maybe really can save you from starving to death - see video Still we keep chugging away at our dinner tables, food for thought.
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