The Dirt on Peak Fertilizer: What You Need to Know about Big Ag and Farmland
We take so much for granted: water, food, clean air, and the earth we walk upon—which, by the way, is changing for the worse under our very feet. Thanks to aggressive farming techniques by factory farms, our soil is becoming depleted of necessary nutrients. Very soon (and sooner than we’d like), it may be difficult to grow much of anything.
NPK: The 3 Elements of Agriculture
We’ve all heard of peak oil, but less notice has been paid to peak phosphorus and potassium, two of the three key elements in agriculture that allow plants to take root and thrive. (The other element is nitrogen.) Our ancestors rotated fields to allow soil to rest after each harvest to prevent such nutrient depletion, and since the identification of these elements in the 19th century, we’ve put food and animal (sometimes human) waste back into the earth as what began to be called fertilizer in the 20th century. Respecting natural rotation and farming techniques, however, is something Big Ag hasn’t bothered to do.
Phosphorus and Potassium Shortage
These days, we rely on manufactured fertilizer with NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium on the periodic table). Nitrogen can be harnessed from the air and incorporated into synthetic fertilizers (which come with a slew of problems in themselves, not least of which is the need for tremendous amounts of energy in production). The two other elements, however, are making Big Ag stumble. They can’t exactly be synthesized, and there are finite amounts of them in completely different parts of the world. According to Jeremy Grantham (cofounder and chief strategist of the firm Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo, which has avoided or at least predicted every bubble from the ‘80s to today), the problem is more than just Big Ag’s.
“These two elements [phosphorus and potassium] cannot be mad, cannot be substituted, are neceeary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted… Former Soviet states and Canada have more than 70 percent of the potash. Morocco has 85 percent of all high-grade phosphates. It is the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history… There seems to be only one conclusion: their use must be drastically reduced in the next 20-40 years or we will begin to starve.”
Of the two elements, phosphorus is more urgent—and complicated. After the Spanish colonialists left the Western Sahara, Morocco moved in, perhaps to secure this very resource. The UN recognizes the rebel group Polisario Front as the rightful owners of the territory. Whether in the hands of Moroccans or the rebels, this element will not be traded lightly.
Factory Farming Not the Solution
There’s no way around this in the long run: soil nutrients must be respected and recycled naturally, without synthetic fertilizers to pollute waters and sicken farmers and consumers. According to Mother Jones writer Tom Philpott, this means society-wide composting and introducing policies to encourage farmers to build up organic matter in their soil. Once again, organic farming looks like the long-term solution.