Phosphate fertilizers are used worldwide to increase agricultural yields. With a growing population has come a growing demand for food and, in turn, these fertilizers. A ballooning global middle class is consuming more meat, further increasing humanity’s appetite for phosphorus. Despite these realities, phosphate is mined with little regard for waste, applied to fields with no incentive to reduce runoff, and flushed without a second thought. These factors accelerate the depletion of this crucial nutrient at home and abroad. Given the imminent possibility of peak phosphorus, I suggest the following policy initiatives to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to stem our contribution to this crisis.
(1) Prioritize phosphorus use for food production by instituting price signals to incentivize conservative use of phosphate in fertilizers and other products and processes.
(2) Restructure agricultural subsidies to discourage meat consumption and non-cellulosic biofuel production. In conjunction with these changes, consumers should be educated about the personal and societal benefits of eating less meat.
(3) Intensify efforts to recover phosphorus from human and livestock waste by increasing research funding, piloting new technologies, and taking advantage of the confluence of phosphorus recovery and non-point source water pollution mitigation.
Phosphate rock mining operation
Phosphate fertilizer prices increased approximately 350 percent between 2003 and 2008, a trend whose direction is sure to continue as phosphorus grows scarcer. The USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics division should preempt steep price increases by taxing the sale of phosphorus materials at a higher rate in the near term. This would encourage conservative fertilizer use by farmers without crippling their ability to afford it. Implementing price signals could also affect the choice of non-agricultural industries to use phosphorus in their products. Although they have been mostly phased out in cleansers and detergents, products like fire retardants, metal treatments, and lubricants still use phosphorus materials. This initiative could ultimately hasten efforts to conserve national phosphorus reserves, which account for more than 90% of domestic use.
In collaboration with other governmental bodies, the USDA should begin restructuring agricultural subsidies to account for the effects of increasing meat consumption and biofuel production on phosphorus demand. Changes to subsidies should aim to allow the price of meat to rise through the reduction of subsidies for livestock feed crops and for certain subsidy programs for livestock itself. Additionally, the USDA should phase out subsidies for biofuel crops in favor of stimulating cellulosic biofuel utilization. Doing so would reduce organic waste whose value may otherwise may go unrealized for the purpose of growing food in the short term. Both of these measures would disincentivize heavy reliance on fertilizers by forcing farmers to reexamine their budgets. The final component of this initiative would be systematic public outreach to educate consumers about the benefits of decreasing their meat consumption and about the concept of peak phosphorus, which could be spearheaded by the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services arm.
Waste lagoon at a massive hog farm, where animal excrement rich in phosphorus is stored
Perhaps most importantly, the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics division should intensify efforts to understand recovery of phosphorus from human and livestock waste by increasing research funding, implementing new technologies, and engaging the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the dual benefits of phosphorus recovery and non-point source water pollution mitigation. Many promising technologies for waste phosphorus recovery have been piloted in recent years, some of which produce phosphate in a virtually ready-to-apply form. Having the ability to efficiently recover phosphorus materials from wastewater would decrease the virgin phosphorus extracted, is scalable to a growing population, and may present the opportunity for operators of wastewater treatment plants to profit. Similar processes could even be applied in relative measures in areas of severe eutrophication, serving the dual purpose of increasing available phosphorus and mitigating water pollution. For this reason, additional funding could possibly be secured from the EPA.
Massive pile of phosphogypsum, a waste product of phosphate fertilizer production