Most days I will browse the Guardian news app for a dose of reasonably considered articles.
This is a futile addiction. It means that I will find any number of depressing instances of fuckwittery until I get to the end of the feed, where each day I can find a collection of photojournalism that is fascinating and inspiring for what it shows about the world.
The other day I was on this quest toward the amazing images when I came across this headline…
Phosphate fertilizer ‘crisis’ threatens world food supply
It was a long way down the feed and I had perused any number of articles on meaningless politics before this old-school title, the sort that used to be standard newspaper copy, peeked out at me from among the trivia.
A ‘crisis’ you say?
Does this mean that it is a real crisis or an air quote crisis, the sort that isn’t really?
As any followers would know it was the ‘world food supply’ topic that got me but only because this is the subject of my profession as an applied scientist. If I was a dental nurse or an insurance salesman, this topic would pass by anonymously.
Anyway, we click through and start to get the gist of the content.
Essentially there are two issues that make up the crisis.
Issue 1 — supply of phosphate is finite
The supply of phosphate, a key nutrient that gave us the agricultural revolution of the 1950s and has sustained agricultural production ever since is finite at around 70 billion tons. Sounds like a lot but at the current rate of use, supply will run out in a generation, maybe 30 years at a push.
Issue 2 — the supply is mostly in one place
Second problem is that the five locations across the world with the largest reserves hold almost 60bn tons and most of this is in Western Sahara. One place with nearly all the reserves of a resource that could ransom the world is a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Think Straits of Hormuz and you will get the idea.
Indeed, as I write there is a crisis in Hong Kong triggered by uncertainty over governance that has a deadline 28 years hence. People are mobilised over rights and lifestyle they fear is being eroded even though the deadline is decades away. The same timeframe for running out of a crucial agricultural nutrient.
There is zero chance of mobilisation over the phosphorus crisis.
Only the threat to rights, lifestyle and wellbeing from a phosphorus shortage is just as acute and would apply across the globe, not just within a jurisdiction. Yet instead of a headline, we get a half-hearted call to action two-thirds of the away down a standard newsfeed.
Maybe this is the reason. The crisis is too diffuse to register anywhere other than next to a piece on ‘Footage reveals Savoy Hotel doorman’s ‘assault’ on homeless man’.
Not to worry.
The global supply of food just has to increase by 2% per annum for the next 30 years to feed all the people. All that will do is bring the cliff closer and speed up the vehicle we are driving towards it.
So what should be done?
Well, there are some things that will help.
Solution #1 — increase efficiency
Currently, many farmers add more phosphorus than they need to because they want to avoid the risk of not adding enough and losing yield. We could make farmers much more efficient at using phosphorus in cropping systems by getting smarter at when plants need the nutrient and how the soils deliver it so as not to over-fertilize. This will have the added advantage of lowering pollution from farm runoff, a significant issue for waterways in agricultural landscapes.
There is some work in this both in understanding how phosphorus moves around in different soils and contexts as well as the tacky psychology of changing the way the farmer goes about his business.
Solution #2 — be frugal
Add phosphorus but not with the aim of maxing out the yield, more to achieve a production gain and so spread the benefit over a longer time frame. This is more attractive than it sounds for when we go long there are benefits to soil and business resilience.
Solution #3 — use alternative sources of phosphorus
There are very few alternatives to rock phosphorus that generate industrial-scale volumes.
There is one, the bones and offal of livestock that pass through abattoirs. Although, this is more recycling than a minable stock it has to be done as does the nutrients in human waste that should not end up in the ocean.
Solution #4 — reduce waste
Global food supply chains are typically profitable mostly thanks to externalities and mining of the resource base. They are enabled by modern transport systems and use huge amounts of energy for each calorie of food that is consumed.
Profitability often goes with profligacy. You would imagine that the profit-hungry would look at all options for efficiency only they don’t when those actions mean more work. Why organise redistribution prior to the use-by date when dumping the out of date food is easier.
Estimates are that at least a third of food produced is wasted. That represents a huge amount of phosphorus used for not benefit.
Solution #5 — all of the above
Multiplicity is essential in most global crises for the scale and risk do not match a single silver bullet option. All solutions for greater care and efficiency are needed as are all options fro recycling and novel sources.
In the meantime let’s hope that those with designs on global dominion leave Morocco alone.