The following excerpt is from a recent U.N. assessment on the state of the world and food production. It’s not a pretty picture, but despite alarm bells ringing, our trajectory of ecological collapse is still firmly on track…
Click to go to full letter:
The human rights of people and well-being of the planet first? Don’t make me laugh. There’s that oxymoron again – sustainable development. Given the track record of the U.N. on solving problems, rest assured there won’t be any radical ideas coming out of that institution that might threaten capitalism’s death grip on the planet. If there’s no money to be made, resource to be exploited, or economic growth to be had, then it won’t get done. Period.
…From the UK Guardian article discussing the above U.N. assessment:
…Failing harvests in the US, Ukraine and other countries this year have eroded reserves to their lowest level since 1974. The US, which has experienced record heatwaves and droughts in 2012, now holds in reserve a historically low 6.5% of the maize that it expects to consume in the next year, says the UN.
“We’ve not been producing as much as we are consuming. That is why stocks are being run down. Supplies are now very tight across the world and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UNFood and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). With foodconsumption exceeding the amount grown for six of the past 11 years, countries have run down reserves from an average of 107 days of consumption 10 years ago to under 74 days recently…
…In a shocking new assessment of the prospects of meeting food needs, Lester Brown, president of the Earth policy research centre in Washington, says that the climate is no longer reliable and the demands for food are growing so fast that a breakdown is inevitable, unless urgent action is taken.
“Food shortages undermined earlier civilisations. We are on the same path. Each country is now fending for itself. The world is living one year to the next,” he writes in a new book.
According to Brown, we are seeing the start of a food supply breakdown with a dash by speculators to “grab” millions of square miles of cheap farmland, the doubling of international food prices in a decade, and the dramatic rundown of countries’ food reserves.
This year, for the sixth time in 11 years, the world will consume more food than it produces, largely because of extreme weather in the US and other major food-exporting countries. Oxfam last week said that the price of key staples, including wheat and rice, may double in the next 20 years, threatening disastrous consequences for poor people who spend a large proportion of their income on food…
…“The geopolitics of food is fast overshadowing the geopolitics of oil.”
…“The situation we are in is not temporary. These things will happen all the time. Climate is in a state of flux and there is no normal any more.
“We are beginning a new chapter. We will see food unrest in many more places.
“Armed aggression is no longer the principal threat to our future. The overriding threats to this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages and rising food prices,” Brown says.
Food prices from 1990 to the present…
And an open letter(10-12-2012) by Professor Christopher Rhodes on our looming problem of Peak Phosphorus…
Our politicians should be running on a platform of issues concerning basic survival at this point.
This post is about a resource that is not discussed much, but whose importance to our survival is paramount. It was named one of the top six natural resources most depleted by human usage. All living organisms, including bacteria, require phosphorus in order to live. Modern industrial farming is dependent on phosphorus, and industrial civilization’s primary supply for this vital nutrient is phosphate rock, a finite and nonrenewable resource which cannot be synthesized or created in a lab:
…Just like oil, phosphorus cannot be replaced or artificially manufactured. It can only be recycled through the application of organic matter. However, since urban areas started to use flush toilets, phosphorus was no longer returned to the soil, but washed out into water systems. The use of the local organic matter was then replaced by phosphate rock, which has to be mined or drilled out from the deep soil.
According to Petter Jensen, professor at the University of Biotechnology and Environment in Oslo, phosphorus will soon be a rare and valuable resource. He has been analysing phosphorous production for more than twenty years, and concluded that based on the data available, it is clear that the alarm bells should be ringing…
Cheap energy has allowed humans to extract increasingly greater amounts of phosphate rock in order to propel the ‘Green Revolution’ and support the explosion of world population over the last six decades.
…The world’s reliance on phosphorus is an unappreciated aspect of the “Green Revolution,” a series of agricultural innovations that made it possible to feed the approximately 4.2 billion-person increase in the global population since 1950. This massive expansion of global agricultural production required a simultaneous increase in the supply of key resources, including water and nitrogen. Without an increase in phosphorus, however, crops would still have lacked the resources necessary to fuel a substantial increase in production, and the Green Revolution would not have gotten off the ground…
As you can see from the following graphs, the increase of the global population tracks with that of oil production and the mining of phosphate rock:
The GPRI estimates the peak of phosphorus to occur around 2033. As with many other commodities, oil plays an important part in the price of phosphate rock. In the following graph, the spike in phosphate rock price coincides with the oil price spike of 2008. That same year China also imposed a temporary export tariff of 135% on their reserves:
1. Phosphate rock is a finite resource that takes 10s to 100s of millions of years to cycle or ‘renew’ naturally;
2. Phosphate rock is a non-homogenous resource, where the higher quality, more easily accessible layers are mined first;
3. As a result of 1 and 2 above, this means that over time, the average quality of phosphate rock is deceasing, in terms of P2O5 percentage (and also the increasing presence of impurities and heavy metals). This is also supported by empirical evidence;
4. Premise 3 means that increasing energy, resources, and costs are required per unit output of nutrient. That is, to extract the same nutrient content (e.g., P2O5) over time requires increasing inputs;
5. Premise 3 also means that extracting the same nutrient output generates more waste byproducts;
6. While the short and medium term costs may fluctuate due to short term changes in demand or improvements in production methods, over the long term costs and energy inputs will increase, and indeed will increase not linearly, but exponentially as ore concentrations decline and will require an increasing amount of phosphate rock to be mined. Observable changes over time typically occur once approximately 50% of the resource has been consumed;
7. While there may be some fluctuations causing year-to-year variation in phosphate production (due to supply-side or demand-side variables, there will always be a global demand for phosphorus, as argued in section 2);
8. This means at some critical point, the increasing annual production of phosphate rock will become unviable due to increasing energy, economic and other constraints, while demand will continue to increase.
A key significance of peak phosphorus analysis is that the critical point in time is not when 100% of the reserves are depleted, but much sooner than this. This means, preparing for a soft-landing will need to take this timeline into account, given that most measures (such as those outlined later in section 7 and ) will take decades to be implemented. It must be re-iterated here that farmers need both annual and long-term access to phosphorus fertilizers in order to achieve high crop yields. If no action is taken decades before the anticipated peak, a hard-landing response to peak phosphorus is likely to result in a situation of:
• increased energy and raw material consumption;
• increased production, processing and transport costs;
• increased generation of waste and pollution;
• further short-term price spikes;
• long-term trend of increased mineral phosphate prices;
• increased geopolitical tensions;
• reduced farmer access to fertilizer markets;
• reduced global crop yields; and
• increased global hunger.
Key factors likely to contribute to a net increasing future demand for phosphorus include:
increased population growth (9 billion expected by 2050) causing a surge in food demand;
per capita increased phosphorus demand due to changing dietary preferences towards more meat and dairy products (especially in growing economies like China and India), which require significantly more phosphorus fertilizer per capita.
increasing demand for non-food crops like biofuels (energy crops require substantial amounts of phosphorus fertilizers to ensure high crop growth) or lithium-iron-phosphate electric vehicle batteries, which can require 60 kg of phosphate per battery;
The need to boost soil fertility in phosphorus-deficient regions. Industry projections of demand are often based on the current market demand, that is, those players with purchasing power. However there is a large ‘silent’ demand from poor farmers with phosphorus-deficient soils that cannot currently access fertilizer markets. In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, where at least 30% of the population is undernourished, fertilizer application rates are extremely low and 75% of agricultural soils are nutrient deficient thus yields are falling.
While improvements in efficiency in phosphorus recovery from mining may decrease demand for phosphate rock, it is likely that the factors placing upward pressure on demand would still outweigh these efficiency gains.
Only a couple of countries hold the majority of phosphate rock. Interestingly, upon joining the World Trade Organization, China’s reported reserves doubled overnight. Like Saudi Arabia’s dubious stated oil reserves, China’s commercial interests and lack of transparency appear to have muddied a true accounting of their phosphate rock reserves.
Morocco, known as the ‘Saudi Arabia of phosphate’, is the major source on the market. If you speak to anyone from that country involved in their phosphate industry, they will tell you there’s no problem with supply. Similarly, the Saudis swear that they can meet the needs of the world oil market far into the distant future. Experts on the global extraction of phosphate rock are not swayed by reassurances from industry suppliers:
Competing with our food supply’s need for phosphates are biofuels whose production also requires large amounts of the nutrient. Biofuel from algae is the latest proposal to solve our liquid fuel needs, but according to Professor Chris Rhodes, phosphate is the Achilles’ heel of biofuels and it’s not feasible to replace global oil consumption with biofuels:
World rock phosphate production amounts to around 140 million tonnes. In comparison, we would need 352 million tonnes of the mineral to grow sufficient algae to replace all the oil-derived fuels used in the world.2 The US produces less than 40 million tonnes of rock phosphate annually, but to become self-sufficient in algal diesel would require around 88 million tonnes of the mineral. Hence, for the US, security of fuel supply could not be met by algae-to-diesel production using even all its indigenous rock phosphate output, and significant further imports would be needed. This is in addition to the amount of the mineral necessary to maintain existing agriculture. In principle, phosphate could be recycled from one batch of algae to the next, but how exactly this might be done remains a matter of some deliberation. e.g. The algae could be dried and burned, and the phosphate extracted from the resulting “ash”, or the algae could be converted to methane in a biodigester, releasing phosphate in the process. Clearly there are engineering and energy costs attendant to any and all such schemes and none has been adopted as yet…
“Personalised transport (cars) will be largely a thing of the past.” says Professor Rhodes.
Now if we can just get rid of all the world’s cars and retrofit all the toilets to recycle the global human population’s urea and feces, then maybe we’ll have a chance to survive. Oh yeah, I forgot about that climate change problem.