Concern about phosphorus depletion

Cecil didn’t mention that concern about this, expressed in almost identical terms, has been around for a very long time …

‘With your intensive agriculture you’re simply draining the soil of phosphorus. More than one half of one per cent a year. Going clean out of circulation. And then the way you throw away hundreds of thousands of tons of phosphorous pentoxide in your sewage! Pouring it into the sea. And you call that progress! Your modern sewage systems! You ought to be putting it back where it came from. On the land … No doubt you think you can make good the loss with phosphate rocks. But what’ll you do when the rocks are exhausted? What then? Only two hundred years and they’ll be finished …’

That is Lord Edward Tantamount in Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Point Counter Point’. It was published in 1928, more than 80 years ago!

Lord Edward is based on the real scientist JS Haldane.

Link to Column:

I find it impressive that his estimate of 200 years sounds not so far off. Hopefully organic farming will spread and help with this mess. Developing countries will certainly have the most troubles.

Meanwhile, I am going to urinate on my pepper plants.

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Boards, mort0002, we’re glad to have you with us.

When you start a thread, it’s helpful to other readers if you provide a link to the column under discussion. Yes, it’s on the front page now, but in a few days it will sink into the depths. So, it saves searching time (and helps keep everyone on the same page) to provide a link. I’ve edited it into your post. No biggie, you’ll know for next time, and, as I say, welcome.

There are all sorts of shortages we can start worrying about, folks. But as Mort0002 points out, these doomsday scenarios have been spun for a long time. Fortunately, substitution and its interplay with technology put off the supposed crisis.

Of course, it doesn’t help much when the government subsidizes ethanol and other biofuels, which in turn puts artificial pressure on agricultural production and the use of phosphorus.

I sent the link for this column to an American friend who is involved in agriculture upcountry over here. He’s a tobacco buyer and works with the local farmers on the crop. He sent me this message below:

**"Don’t I know it! Last year the price of fertilizer doubled, which made a lot of our farmers switch to cheaper blends containing chloride, bad for tobacco, but that’s another story. Prices have since come down some.

"I’m surprised Cecil didn’t mention the main reason for the shortage of phosphate, thus higher prices. To wit, a run on fertilizer stocks by government subsidised producers of ethanol and bio-diesel crops; corn inthe USA, sugar cane in Brazil, oil palm in Indonesia, etc. Fertilizer is being diverted from producing food crops for people to producing food crops for cars.

“And since there are relatively few producers (Cecil didn’t mention Canada), they figured out, ‘Hey, if we dribble it out slowly, we cansell it at a higher price. If we produce lots of it, the price falls and we run out of it faster.’ Sound familiar? The new OPEC, organization of phosphorus exporting countries.”**

This was more for securing the nitrates for gunpowder, not so much for fertilizer.

Most sources emphasize guano’s use as fertilizer. See for example Salon’s thorough account at: