Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Phosphorus: On the Road to Ruin?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Global Change, Sustainability, Science & Society, Culture

Ed Hessler

--Life can multiply until all the phosphorus is gone and then there is an inexorable halt which nothing can prevent.--Isaac Asimov (Quote from Dan Eagan, The Devil's Element used by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, March 6, 2023)

The world has a phosphorus problem, says Elizabeth Kolbert in reporting for The New Yorker, March 6, 2023. * It is must reading and my summary barely substitutes for her superb reporting.

The problem is that phosphorus rich rock is limited in abundance. Kolbert notes that of the world's phosphorus reserves, Morocco "possesses...about seventy per cent of the planet's known...reserves...China..holds the ...second largest--these are less than one-tenth the size of Morocco's--and Algeria the third largest." There are other reserves which are very much smaller, e.g., in Florida where mining competes with development. 

Ms. Kolbert provides a short history of the element and its use/misuse in a surprisingly short and quite frightening essay. 
Some of her points are found below as direct quotes and paraphrases.  I emphasize that all of this, excluding my mash-ups, is Ms. Kolbert's work; not mine. Consider it to be in quotes. I highlight a few quotes with quotation marks.  

--The conundrum. "Crops need nutrients to grow, but harvesting them removes the nutrients, leaving the soil unfit for future harvests. This was worked around by letting depleted fields lie fallow; spreading animal waste including their own, on the land; and planting legumes, which possess restorative properties."

--The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt returned with a sample of a highly prized material--bird manure. When it was analyzed, it was found to have large amounts of two essential plant nutrients--nitrogen and phosphorus. And thus was born an extractive industry based on guano deposited by sea birds on the Chincha Islands
--What followed is common. An apparently unlimited resource is extracted more quickly than expected, one that seemed inexhaustible. Other reserves were sought with no change in practices. Islands also seemed to be an endless supply. Inevitably, this source was consumed.--A new era of phosphorus was then exploited, this time in phosphorus mineral deposits. 
--Why is phosphorus so critical? There is this fact which can't be modified: without phosphorus there wouldn't be life, as we know it.  There is no substitute. DNA. ATP, our bones.

--Ahead, though, is a point when extraction will exceed the phosphorus supply. The "when" is a point of dispute, say a few years to a few centuries. Use of any resource always involves waste and what has been distributed to aid and sustain crop growth is finding its way into waterways resulting in HABs, harmful algal blooms (aka red tides) and these are found world wide. Some alga thrive in them but the expense is costly to other life: suffocation. HABs include dead zones in oceans. One large one lies close to our southern shores on the northern Gulf of Mexico.

--So what are some solutions? Kolbert brought a jug of urine, a rich phosphorus source when she visited Rich Earth's Urine Nutrient Reclamation Program, Rich Earth Institute (REI), in Burlington. There urine is pasteurized and distributed to local farmer for use as a fertilizer--referred to as "peecycling". Kolbert's article points out the problem: scale.  REI processes ~ 12,000 gallons annually while New York City produces about a billion gallons; Shanghai produces three billion. But REI is a local action.

Kolbert cites suggestions discussed in a book by Dan Egan such as stripping phosphorus from sewage treatment plants - pee cycling at a larger scale and careful manure management. 

Another book by Dan Elser, an ecologist at the University of Montana and British soil scientist Phil Haygarth is more draconian in its recommendation: remaking global agriculture from the ground up and they have some suggestions.
--Kolbert's closing comments are free of bleach. Sugar free. "It is well known that short-term solutions have long-term costs but when we become aware of them, reversing course is not a possibility."  She points out that it is "in this sense, the world's phosphorus problem resembles its carbon dioxide problem, its plastics problem,  its groundwater-use problem, its soil-erosion problem , and its nitrogen problem. The path humanity is on may lead to ruin, but, as of yet, no one has found a workable way back." (my bold)
Consider such a recipe for a way back. There is another ingredient, one that dominates: socio-cultural-econo-politics on a global scale. I've not included the uncertainties, the inevitable surprises of the results of actions. Consequences with cascading effects.

*Kolbert, E. (2023, March 6). Elemental need: Phosphorus helped save our way of life and now threatens to end it. The New Yorker, 22 - 26
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