Will "Peak Fertilizer" Trigger a Global Famine?

Posted by - Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Our planet is increasingly dependent on fertilizers as the global population grows and arable land shrinks. We've all heard of peak oil, but how about peak fertilizer?

Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are critically important to maintaining farmland and crops, yet are a depleting resource due to the demands of modern agriculture. In the same manner that the world is running out of easily exploited oil reserves, the world is facing a shrinking supply of crucial fertilizer components.

While nitrogen can be synthesized from the atmosphere, phosphates and potassium cannot. They are only found in significant amounts in a few large deposits scattered across the planet. After less than a century of industrial-scale agriculture, we're starting to burn through them at an alarming rate.

fertilizer usage


Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief strategist for the Boston firm Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo, has this to say about the problem:

These two elements cannot be made, cannot be substituted, are necessary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted. It’s a scary set of statements. Former Soviet states and Canada have more than 70% of the potash. Morocco has 85% of all high-grade phosphates. It is the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history. 

What happens when these fertilizers run out is a question I can’t get satisfactorily answered and, believe me, I have tried. There seems to be only one conclusion: their use must be drastically reduced in the next 20–40 years or we will begin to starve.

Of particular concern are the phosphate deposits in Morocco. The deposits are situated in the western Sahara, which is highly disputed land. The UN recognizes a rebel movement, the Polisario Front, as the rightful representatives of the territory.

If and when fighting over the land resumes, we can expect an immediate shock in fertilizer prices that will bleed into already rising food prices.

As Fred Pearce, an environmental writer states, “we may be adding phosphate fertilizer to the list of finite resources, such as water and land, that are constraining world food supplies sooner than we think."

Add in a rapidly growing global population, a loss of .3% of arable land per year on average and massive recurring droughts and the need for fertilizers can only rise further.

2011 was a record year for fertilizer sales and 2012 may be even bigger. With ever-increasing demand we may hit peak phosphate as early as 2033, according to the Soil Association.

As with peak oil, there are no easy or cheap ways to alleviate the problem. Developing an agricultural industry that's ready for a phosphorous shortage means a massive focus on recycling the nutrients we take from the soil back into the soil.

Widespread use of manure and composting is rare in modern agriculture. We have a long way to go, and will have to tolerate higher food prices, to reduce the impact of peak fertilizer.

Failing to address the problem can only result in two things, large-scale famine and unrest. Food demand is already outstripping supply growth. Any large drop in crop yields will spark a quick and massive jump in food prices. If the world's poorest people starve, upheaval and revolts are inevitable.


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