Phosphorus: The Under-appreciated Limit to Life

June 24, 2009

Phosphorus: The Under-appreciated Limit to Life 

 Competency # 16 Minerals                  Reference: Resource:  Scientific American  June 2009

10-10-10.  I’m looking for fertilizer for my houseplants and my garden.  I want to be self-sufficient and have my own garden.  I need some chemicals to make my garden grow.  Do you know what the numbers stand for?  We all know the first one, that’s nitrogen.  Nitrogen is easy to make.  Earth’s atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, so that’s easy.  

The second number is Potassium, which is relatively abundant.  Phosphorus, the third number, is not plentiful. Phosphorus is relatively rare in nature.  Our green revolution in agriculture has allowed us to feed ourselves as the population of the world increases.  In fact, the rate of rise of the population is now more rapid than at any time in history.  We have all learned to be skeptical of bubbles.  When the tech boom bubble burst in the early decade, the rise of tech stocks presaged a dramatic collapse.  Then, there was the housing bubble where our houses escalated in price and then collapsed, much to our collective peril.  

Now, our population is growing with the same type of curve of rapidly rising populations, demanding more and more resources.  The most basic resource is food.  And for food, we are now dependent on fertilizer. Phosphorus is the limiting quantity.  Normally phosphorus is highly conserved by nature.  Before humans, a phosphate molecule would be recycled some 45-50 times before it went from the breakdown of rocks to the sea.  It is part of the backbone of our DNA and of ATP, our cellular energy molecule.  

Life cannot exist without phosphate.  With modern agriculture, we are recycling phosphate with just 4-5 turnovers before its washout out to sea, where it makes algae bloom and dead zones in the ocean after the burst in growth followed by oxygen starvation. With our mining of phosphate reserves, we are exhausting our earth’s phosphate supply.  Unlike oil that is located all over the world, phosphate is mined in only a few places.  Most of America’s supply is in one huge mine in Florida that will be exhausted in about 40 years.  Morocco has 40% of the world’s supply all by itself.  Many countries have none.  

The entire supply will run out in about 100 years.  We will have none in easily retrievable form. That’s a problem. If we are to have a sustainable planet on which life can flourish, we cannot continue to have an endless accelerating growth model.  Our natural instinct to do whatever we like and want is the basis for our current economic system.  That can lead to us being overweight and chronically ill with our eating.  But our eating also is dependent on the use of our precious limiting resources. 

 WWW.  We need to know this.  Life on our planet will continue only if we develop a language and consciousness about preserving it.  And phosphate, dull as it sounds, is one of the limiting features.  So, I’m resolved.  No more artificial fertilizer for me.  I’m doing Milorganite only.  Recycle what’s already been around once.  Make it go around twice, three times, four times…   My grass, not so green.  That’s okay.

Column written by Dr. John E Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. (262-784-5300)