We Need to Talk about Phosphorus

MeatMartin Rowe

When the scattered human communities of the twenty-second century tell their various stories about just how badly we screwed up the planet in the previous century, alongside the emergence of factory farming, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and our failure to move on from our addiction to “cheap” energy from fossil fuels, they might reflect on the use and abuse of one mineral: phosphorus.

Phosphorus, as the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Program dryly puts it, “is an essential element for plant and animal growth,” and mainly used in fertilizers. The site goes on to state that once the element runs off the land into the waterways it (along with the nitrogen in the fertilizer) is responsible for eutrophication, which, observes the site with admirable sangfroid, causes “increased growth of undesirable algae and aquatic weeds, as well as oxygen shortages resulting from their die-off and decomposition,” restricting “water use for fisheries, recreation, industry, and drinking.” These are the “dead zones” where no aquatic life exists and bacterial infestations make water poisonous for everyone.

The website goes on to describe how best to apply phosphorus to avoid run-off and eutrophication. However, noticeably absent from this site geared to farmers is the  fact that phosphorus is a finite resource, of which ninety percent is only available in five countries: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. The U.S. imports most of its phosphorus, since it has only 25 years’ supply left. As Renee Cho of the Earth Institute of Columbia University notes,  “Morocco . . . controls up to 85 percent of the remaining phosphate rock reserves. However, many of Morocco’s mines are located in Western Sahara, which Morocco has occupied against international law. Despite the prevalence of phosphorus on earth, only a small percentage of it can be mined because of physical, economic, energy or legal constraints.” She continues:

With a world population that is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and require 70 percent more food than we produce today, and a growing global middle class that is consuming more meat and dairy, phosphorus is crucial to global food security. Yet, there are no international organizations or regulations that manage global phosphorus resources. Since global demand for phosphorus rises about 3 percent each year (and may increase as the global middle class grows and consumes more meat), our ability to feed humanity will depend upon how we manage our phosphorus resources.

Unfortunately, most phosphorus is wasted. Only 20 percent of the phosphorus in phosphate rock reaches the food consumed globally. Thirty to 40 percent is lost during mining and processing; 50 percent is wasted in the food chain between farm and fork; and only half of all manure is recycled back into farmland around the world.

Let’s be clear here. Phosphorus is non-negotiable necessity. We need it in our bodies, we need it in our soils, and we need it to grow all the things we eat. Yet, not only are we using up the precious available resources rapidly, but we are wasting a lot of it in run-off and on growing vast acreages of crops to feed to animals—a process that is itself a deeply inefficient and wasteful use of land, water, fertilizer, and fossil fuel energy.

Now, it may be the case that in thirty years time humankind will have found a way not to need so much phosphorus to grow its food. Certainly, as Ruth DeFries argues in The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, the harnessing of phosphorus and nitrogen in the use of fertilizer radically altered how food was grown and how much of it could be grown. It ensured that the Malthusian fear of vast, starving populations has yet to be realized. That “pivot” (as DeFries calls the technological shift) in the face of the need to feed a population of 9, 11, or even 13 billion might occur again.

But that’s a very, very big gamble. In the meantime, surely, rather than rely on magical thinking about human ingenuity rescuing us from our own short-sightedness, we should apply a precautionary principle and move away as quickly as possible from using artificial fertilizers to grow massive monocultures of crops to feed to ever-increasing numbers of animals whom we eat. And even if we can’t have that conversation among policy makers at the moment, at the very least it would help if extension services, governments, and agencies concerned with food security faced up to the reality that phosphorus is only theoretically abundant and acted accordingly.

Closing the Conservation/Animal Advocacy Gap

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

Two weekends ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Rethinking Animals Summit in New York City. As is the way with events such as this, panelists were alotted a brief amount of time for their presentation, during which most of them pitched their organization’s work (in one way or another), and then responded to questions and answers. In spite of the limitations of the format in engaging discussion and going more deeply into issues, however, two main themes stuck out for me.

The first is that conservationists—individuals who are primarily concerned with ecosystems, species survival, the wild, and “Nature” writ large—are finally recognizing the significance that the consumption of animals has for all of their concerns. From the outset, animal advocates (who’ve over the decades tended to focus on the welfare of individual animals within the human environment, and whose movement has defined itself through moral and social reform rather than environmentalism’s scientific analysis or transcendentalist aesthetic of the sublime) have found themselves at odds with those who’ve considered animals raised for food either as “unnatural,” or an invasive species, or a subject best not talked about for fear of appearing sentimental, unscientific, ideological, or insensitive to the realities that face subsistence farmers and the malnourished around the world.

The impact of globalized factory farming and monocultures of feed crops on fragile, vital ecosystems (either directly in terms of deforestation, resource use, pollution, and biodiversity loss or indirectly through adding to GHG emissions) is making it impossible to claim that our food preferences are merely personal choices with no policy or economic ramifications. This is a welcome realignment, offering the genuine possibility that we’ll finally see large environmental and social justice organizations start to work with animal protection organizations to offer a new vision of protecting the planet.

The second theme of the conference was the vital importance of the oceans. Anna Cummins of 5Gyres.org talked about the five major sites of plastic debris in the oceans; Carter and Olivia Ries, the dynamic 16- and 14-year-olds who run One More Generation, described their One Less Straw campaign, in which they are trying to make a dent in the percentage of the 500 million straws used each day in the U.S. alone that end up in the ocean and animals in that ocean. Others talked about the loss of tropical reefs and trophic cascade collapse.

Until recently, it has been hard for animal advocates to talk about fish: unlike land and air animals raised for food, fish caught and eaten are measured by the ton and not individually. Fish don’t look like us, they don’t rear their young like us, and their medium is alien to us. Furthermore, their emotional and social lives were unfamiliar, until scholars like Jonathan Balcombe gathered the research. Even so, advocates have tended to talk about high mercury and other toxic elements in fish and overfishing rather than no longer eating fish, whether wild caught or raised in tanks, because of the pain they feel or the societies we disrupt.

After this conference, it’s my judgment that animal advocates and environmentalists need to be much more forthright in how we approach the subject of eating fish. Even if it might not be possible to extend cetacean rights to fish, it seems self-evident now that those of us who can afford not to eat marine protein should stop doing so—to protect ecosystems and to allow those communities in the developing world who depend on them for their major source of protein to do so. We should argue that we need to do all we can to allow the fish populations to rebound—not just for us, but for all the other species that depend on them for survival.