[permaculture] Phosphorus Theft

Keith Johnson keithdj at mindspring.com
Tue Dec 8 15:50:55 EST 2009

fdnokes at hotmail.com wrote:
> I've never been a fan of fertilizer, and the permaculture movement is 
> largely about supporting nature to create good soil, but it does make sense 
> to acknowledge that the current infrastructure that is responsible for 
> feeding the millions does rely on phosphorous.
It is not merely the "current infrastructure of agriculture" that 
depends on phosphorus but all life on earth, i.e. the original 
infrastructure. It is a component of key molecules such as nucleic 
acids, phospholipids, and AdenosineTriPhosphate, and, consequently, 
plants cannot grow without a reliable supply of this nutrient. All 
organisms that eat plants also need phosphorus and we are included in 
this. It happens to be a nutrient that can be lost from soils and once 
it is gone it must be replaced. That would normally be done by cycling 
ANIMAL manures (especially from insect eating birds, and humans) back 
into the soil. If your soil doesn't have enough you will need to provide 
it. *Get a soil test.* The continents are "leaking" what they should be 
conserving and this loss generates vast dead zones in our oceans. Its 
for this reason that I have supplemented rock phosphates in my own and 
client's gardens. So far it's still relatively cheap despite substantial 
price increases.

(snips from http://www.energybulletin.net/49686)

*Mobilizing phosphorus present in the soil *

In many soils phosphorus is naturally present in sufficient amounts, 
however, it may be chemically locked up and not available for plants. 
Most of industrial agricultural soils in Western Europe and North 
America are oversupplied with huge amounts of superphosphate 
fertilizers, which results in binding phosphorus up with other elements 
so it ends up unused in the soil. In consequence, the concentration of 
phosphorus may be as high as 750 ppm, while only 45 ppm is necessary for 
growing grains . To determine whether you have a sufficient level of 
phosphorus in your soil, the surest way is to make a soil test. If the 
amount of phosphorus seems to be okay, but your plants show signs of 
phosphorus deficiency (purplish leaves, stunted stems), you may need 
help from a specially skilled team of phosphorus extractors -- fungi. 
Fungi are decay experts in soils. The enzymes that they secrete allow 
them to break up lignin, cellulose, chitin shells of insects and bones 
of animals, which are too difficult to digest for bacteria. A single 
teaspoon of a healthy soil may contain several meters of fungal hyphae, 
invisible to the naked eye. The optimum range for phosphorus uptake by 
plants is pH 6.0 -- 7.5, and on either side of this range phosphorus 
becomes immobile. A conventional approach would be to adjust pH by 
adding sulfur in alkaline soils or lime in acidic soils.

There are many soils around the world that are naturally deficient in 
phosphorus, such as soils in the Amazon Basin, on Java or in Australia. 
Others have been damaged by inappropriate farming practices -- bare 
soils were flushed by rains, which washed away phosphorus, they were 
depleted by overharvesting of crops and their natural soil food webs 
were destroyed, making it impossible for plants to feed on anything 
other than artificial fertilizers. *While soil food webs can be 
restored, wherever there is not enough elemental phosphorus present, for 
any reason, it must be brought back by the farmer. The other option is 
to wait until mountain-generating processes raise the bottom of the sea, 
where phosphate fertilizers end up. When the new mountain ranges are 
formed, the rain will start to wash phosphorus out of the rocks, making 
it available for plants again. But this will take some time -- around 
10-15 million years....

*Superphosphate fertilizers are made from chemically treated phosphate 
rocks. They are not recommended for use as they are highly concentrated 
and reactive. When applied on the field they react with calcium, iron, 
magnesium and aluminum, creating within seconds compounds that make 
phosphorus unavailable for plants. They may react also with trace 
elements, locking them up and causing deficiencies of micronutrients. 
Superphosphates are water soluble and they can be easily washed away by 
rains before plants have a chance to assimilate them, which later may 
cause the eutrophication of lakes and rivers. Not to mention that high 
concentrations of phosphorus in fertilizers (above 10) are lethal to 
mycorrhizal fungi.

Another material that is rich in phosphorus is guano -- bird or bat 
droppings. Bones of fish that are eaten by seabirds contain a lot of 
phosphates, and as a result seabird guano also contains a high level of 
phosphorus. Guano has accumulated over centuries on small islands on the 
Pacific Ocean or on the coast of Chile and Peru, where it was mined in 
such large quantities that its deposits are now severely depleted. In 
contrary to phosphate rocks, it is a renewable resource, however, only 
over a long period. Apart from phosphorus, guano also contains high 
levels of nitrogen and calcium. It can be fresh, semi-fossilized or 
fossilized, depending on the source.

Phosphates can also be found in mud from ponds, in freshwater mussels, 
in fish waste, in algae or in recent volcanic ash. Many plants, such as 
comfrey, lupine, sweetclovers, nettle or vetches accumulate phosphorus 
and they can be used as green manure. Note, however, that they don't 
produce phosphorus in the way that nitrogen is fixed from the air by 
legumes. Rather, *they just extract phosphorus from one place and you 
can put it somewhere else, leaving the source with less phosphorus*.

Bill Mollison: "Of all the elements of critical importance to plants, 
phosphorus is the least commonly found, and sources are rarely available 
locally. Of all the phosphate fertilizers used, Europe and North America 
consume 75% (and get least return from this input because of overuse, 
over-irrigation, and poor soil economy). If we really wanted to reduce 
world famine, the redirection of these surplus phosphates to the poor 
soils of Africa and India (or any other food-deficient area), would do 
it. Forget about miracle plants; we need global ethics for all such 
essential resources."

It is possible to calculate a fair share of the remaining phosphate 
rocks for each country, depending on the soil's condition and number of 
population. And that's exactly what should be done. A global agreement 
is necessary for sharing the last phosphate rock reserves in a common 
sense way.

Our current industrial agricultural system and the global economy that 
supports it are inherently unsustainable. Extracting a limited resource, 
such as phosphorus, and sending it to landfills or dumping it in the 
ocean doesn't make much sense. Sooner or later reserves of phosphate 
rocks will become depleted, then what? There is some back up in the form 
of deposits on the continental shelves and on seamounts in the Atlantic 
and Pacific Oceans, but the cost of mining it can be very high and even 
if industrial farmers were able to buy them, what about farmers from 
Botswana? What about farmers from Madagascar or India? What will be the 
cost of food, when the price of fertilizers goes up? Recycling 
phosphorus is just common sense and it seems inevitable, if we wish to 
continue living on Earth. It means that the exchange of our entire food 
supply and waste management systems is inevitable as well.

Why wait till the industrial food supply system collapses from lack of 
phosphate fertilizers or because they are too expensive to buy? Farming 
the way nature does provides not only healthy soils and good yields, but 
also nutritious food, flavorsome food.

If we manage to close the phosphorus cycle in our countries soon enough, 
we will have plenty of phosphate rocks left. We will be able to use them 
for restoring degraded lands, for planting trees, and greening our 
planet once again.


Keith Johnson
"Be fruitful and mulch apply."
Permaculture Activist Magazine
PO Box 5516, Bloomington, IN 47407
(812) 335-0383
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