How Fertilizer Could Actually Hurt Our Food Supply

Our food system relies on crucial nutrients—and we’re running out of them.
Are the fertilizers we're using to grow crops actually threatening them? (Photo: Ben Bloom/Getty Images)
Nov 30, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

On the face of it, fertilizers seem like a great thing: After all, pumping nutrients into the soil allows us to cultivate much higher global yields than ever before. But they might have an unintended consequence—mainly, agricultural collapse, says food and agriculture blogger Tom Philpott.

In a new story for Mother Jones, Philpott writes about what’s called peak fertilizer, the point in time at which the planet will run out of two key fertilizing nutrients and find itself unable to produce any more. Specifically he’s referring to phosphorus and potassium, which are depleted from the soil every time we harvest crops. To make up for their ever dwindling supplies, we mine these nutrients from specific points around the world, but those supplies are running low as well. If they disappear altogether, we’ll be in a tough position to feed ourselves.

Philpott’s written repeatedly about the issue—“I've been writing about it since 2008 (see here, herehere, and here)”—and so have a number of other major scientific journals. But no one, save a small segment of researchers and scientists, seems to be concerned. “Even after all of that, I can think of few crucial issues as far from the center of public conversation than the phosphorus shortage. We haven't really begun to face the problem of climate change; our reliance on mined phosphorus doesn't register at all. It's easy to ignore crises whose most dire consequences loom decades away.”

University of California, Berkeley professor Ronald Amundsen, whose research involves human impacts on soils and ecosystems, tells TakePart the issue is, at the very least, trifold. For one, “The spike in phosphorus prices a few years only affected a tiny fraction of Americans—farmers—so the general public has no idea of the issue,” he says. He also points out that Congress’ track record of funding research hasn’t been good. “While many of the bills died, it revealed a startling lack of awareness by our leaders on issues that may be a decade or two out on the horizon.”

But perhaps most important, says Amundsen, is that consumers don’t have a reason to care. “We are in a period of likely the lowest food prices in history (expenditures of total income) and there is little reason to suspect a problem is potentially on the horizon,” he says. “We have a lot of extra money for leisure and other activities, but just around the corner (from a human society perspective) we’re headed into shortages of energy and fertilizer that will make energy and food production a much more expensive and difficult proposition.”

It’s a familiar story in the era of industrialized agriculture: Ignore problems now in the name of saving money, only to pay for it later.

Despite dire possibilities, neither Philpott nor Amundsen have given up hope on solutions.

Philpott says we need “a massive focus on recycling the nutrients we take from the soil back into the soil—in other words, composting, not on a backyard level but rather on a society-wide scale.” And we need policies that encourage farmers to build up organic matter in soil, instead of letting it leech out. The good news is, we already know how to do that: “Both of these solutions, of course, are specialties of organic agriculture.” It’s just a matter of doing it.

Amundsen’s currently penning a paper on the issue as a national security threat—85 percent of high grade phosphorus is located in the territorially tense region of Morroco—an angle on the issue which he hopes will be the trigger to wake up the nation.

On a personal level, he says, there are actionable things consumers can do to ward off the problem. Growing your own food is a small-scale step, because it lessens your individual pull on industrial agriculture systems, and enables you to put nutrients back into the earth as you use them. But more than anything else, “exercise our civic muscles,” says Amundsen. “The problem involves changes in policy and economic investment, and our representatives must advocate and change policy for this to happen," he acknowledges. "However, the most critical issue underlying all modern food production is a sustainable energy system that replaces fossil fuel."

As with other industries, it’s time for mass agriculture to catch up, and realize that smaller, more sustainable means aren’t simply an option for our future; they’re emerging as necessary for our survival.

Now that depleting nutrients are on your radar, will you be eating more organic produce? Let us know in the Comments.

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