Durwood M. Dugger and Dr. Sabine R. Alshuth

111025 (updated 130602)


This week popular media headlines proclaim that "the seven billionth person will be or has already been born somewhere on planet Earth."  Unfortunately, that person is being born into a world with finite,  unsustainable, and declining food production resource capacity - even at the current populations levels. As India, China, Africa, Indonesia and other developing parts of the world seek the same kinds of modern agricultural production levels the developed world has enjoyed since its creation of NPK fertilizers prior to and primarily responsible for the "Green Revolution," the demand for NPK has and is rapidly multiplying. If the willfully ignorant, the scientifically illiterate and or irresponsible opportunists get their way and we develop a gigantic biofuels industry - the demand for NPK will become exponential. This in the face of the confluence of the impacts of peak petroleum and peak phosphate on human food production.

As scientific food producers - as aquaculturists, we need to understand that being aware of and planning for critical and or peak resource impacts doesn't require precise date predictions because from a physics mass balance, economic and human species survival standpoint - it's a one way equation and the exact dates of events are not as critical as their ultimate inevitability - even with the inclusion of technological miracles that are economically and temporally improbable at best.

Improbable especially in a declining global economy, scientifically illiterate leadership, the increasing chaos and the associated declining problem solving ability. Business investment writers such as Jeremy Grantham, Paul Farrell, Chris Nelder, and a growing number of other future thinking economic and commodity experts are understatedly correct that we are overpopulated. We are far beyond sustainable population and food production levels based on the economic feasibility/availability of elemental food production nutrients - especially phosphates. 

If you look at history you can see the current global over population ability stems from two interrelated and enabling factors: 1. Cheap energy (petroleum) and  2. Cheap phosphates (NPK fertilizers). Between the mid-1800s and now these two commodities in concert have led to what we now call the Green Revolution and the resulting abundance of cheap and dependable food production (and the technologies that arise when food is no longer a central survival issue) that enabled a global population expansion in less than 200 years from less than 1 billion, to over 7 billion and still growing rapidly.

The confluence of cheap petroleum and cheap phosphates came together in the advent of NPK fertilizer (N - the ability to produce nitrates from natural gas and to mechanically and cheaply mine phosphates and potassium with cheap petroleum fuels) - now critically responsible (directly and indirectly) for 95% of global food production. Two of the resource pillars of NPK fertilizer related commodities - petroleum and phosphate share another characteristic, they both are at their peaks in abundance (on which side of the exact peak is arguable, but in big picture unimportant). Their production is currently either flat, or in declining production while the cost of the remaining resources grows inversely with their scarcity and the increased energy involved in producing their ever more dilute (and therefore more expensive) resource reserves. Potassium is fortunately the seventh most abundant element on earth and its availability is only limited by energy costs, unlike high grade phosphate deposits which are limited by both energy, cost of mining, and comparative scarcity.

Currently, 95% of mined phosphate goes into chemical fertilizer products. In 2007 The US Geologic Survey estimated there was 345 years of remaining global phosphate reserves. This year in 2011, other scientists re-examined those 2007 estimates, considering rising fuel costs, rapidly increasing demand for NPK in India, China, Indonesia, Africa and the rest of the developing world's continually increasing populations. Their conclusion was that we could reach economic depletion of mineable phosphates in as little as 50 years. Those conclusions didn't even consider that our scientifically illiterate population and corrupt political leaders will continue to encourage the development of a gigantic biofuels industry which will be as inevitably dependent on NPK fertilizers - as our food production has become. Some estimate biofuel NPK demand may well quadruple our current food production phosphate demand rates. Thus the unprecedented drop in reserve estimations may actually not be conservative enough. 

As bio-technologists we are keenly aware that nothing lives without adequate phosphorus, (again we don't have to focus on the precision of the exact numbers of reserve projections - we need to focus on the concept of finite resources - especially cheap ones at or past their peak production levels) the magnitude of the change in remaining phosphate reserves was a shocker - especially such a large change in just four years. Sure, we can conserve and recover some waste phosphorus. Conservation is almost always a good idea, but it does not increase the supply in the case of a peak resource, rather only extends the time before it runs out. History also tends to show that recovery can be expensive in energy and capital to recover a resource once its use dilutes it into the environment. Certainly more expensive in the case  of exploiting a cheap natural resources we have become dependent upon. We simply can't replace those high-grade cheaply mined phosphate beds with the same energy/economic paradigms our society and its technologies were built upon. Did I say that our entire modern food production system is dependent on cheap phosphates?

It should seem logical that if you took away cheap petroleum and cheap phosphates (the Hubbert Peak Resource Concept that the world has a number of finite resources - particularly of geologic resources that were originally laid down millions of years ago) that the human population would be forcibly returned to levels of technology and survival that existed before cheap petroleum and cheap phosphate. That would be under 2 billion people that existed pre-industrial fossil fuel revolution, and more importantly pre-NPK. If you doubt our proximity to disaster, consider that we have consumed the majority of the accessible cheap petroleum and peak phosphate deposits in less than 200 years as our population exploded from two to seven billion.  We are now a few, perhaps even only a couple of generations at best away from the depletion of petroleum and economically mineable phosphates - and more importantly the food production ability that comes with them, and again that our 7 billion (on the way to 8 billion in a little over a decade) population existence is now dependent upon. We have and are continuing to biologically and reproductively paint ourselves into a critical peak resource corner. It would appear a corner of catastrophic outcomes. A corner at best without sufficient food in it for our ever growing population demands. 

Some experts' assumptions of a sustainable population above 2 billion has simply no historical basis - in the absence of NPK fertilizers. As biologist specializing in food production for many years, the only logical and historically based picture we can see of a sustainable future for the human species is a population with under 2 billion people. Two billion is a historically based population number that existed pre-industrial revolution, pre-fossil fuel, pre-NPK when the human population lived within the natural phosphorus replenishment cycle. Yes, we will develop and replace petroleum as a fuel and for most energy purposes. Yes, we may stretch phosphate reserves out some. Additional reserves will be found, but scientist are saying that phosphate reserve discovery will not have the elasticity of petroleum reserves. The world's ancient mass extinction derived geologic phosphate deposits left in ancient sea beds have been and continue to be dissolved and dispersed over time by water and contaminated with other minerals such as uranium - even without human involvement. Even much more so now as urban sprawl covers existing and formerly economically feasible phosphate deposits.

As said, but more clearly - we will get a small percentage of our near future phosphorus needs from waste phosphorus recovery (unfortunately our waste systems weren't designed with recovery processes in mind - only disposal, and have spatial, climatic and especially - economic limitations as they are. Many engineers and scientist estimate it would take 50 years to convert our (US) current waste system to effective systems for the recovery of waste energy and phosphorus. Far too long a period given our estimated window of opportunity of as little as 50 years.  Even so, based on current and foreseeable technological developments, any such recovery processes would likely be at a much higher cost than mining the current high grade shallow natural deposits.  Like petroleum, there is only so much phosphate/phosphorus on the planet. We will eventually use all economically accessible phosphate sources. We will continue to dilute the phosphates/ phosphorus and tie it up in our human population related biomass -  our agricultural food species, in the production of biofuels and of course other natural species biomass will tie up their share. In our longer term future, phosphorus will not remain in the economically significant deposits of cheap high grade fossil phosphate deposit form as we have and depend on now. 

We need to understand the seriousness of the confluence of peak petroleum and peak phosphate impacts on global population sustainability - this should be among the first on a long list of sustainability issues for our species. In addition to an awareness of peak phosphate impacts, it is critical that we have a technological plan of what we need to do before we reach those most serious impact points. Right now the problem solving window-of-opportunity regarding how we get past peak petroleum and peak phosphate's combined limitations and manage our species reproductive/peak resource gobbling propensities is by some of the most informed estimates - less than 50 years. Even if these projections are a 100% in error and we have a 100 years, it isn't nearly enough time to comfortably make the changes we need. "Comfortable" in this case means without large numbers of people at best going hungry and at worse starving to death. Unless we address the confluence of peak petroleum and peak phosphate on "peak food" now - we will see a relatively immediate and horrific impact on us - "peak people" As you some have so well pointed out - "the biggest bubble" we have ever known. 

We have a choice. We can chose to develop a plan to manage our resources and our reproduction effectively before we run out of cheap NPK fertilizers and the foods it produces, or we can go from denial into to paralytic shock when confronted by the reality that our food production resource cupboard is quite literally... becoming bare. At that point blind, every-man/nation-for-theirselves survival panic will insure that we start killing each other off in national resource wars (probably starting the first round with biological weapons that leave infrastructure/capital investments intact - however, the defending response will likely be - nuclear). Nothing is more dangerous and chaotic than starving masses of people. Nothing prevents effective problem solving more than chaos, except death itself. Once a point of significant global starvation is reached, any hope for sane and reasonable retreat to sustainable population levels of around 2 B will be lost, and perhaps civilization - as we know it lost as well. 

What we need most of all is awareness of our most critical priorities and the necessary focus to resolve those problems in the time we have. We can forget anthropogenic climate change affects - they will self-correct post-anthropolgically if we fail to address the chain of peak phosphate = peak food = peak people. If we actually achieve an orderly reduction of our population back 2 billion anthropogenic climate change over generations - climate change is still ultimately self resolving. All of our environmental problems stem from one cause - too many humans dependent on limited fossil deposits for energy and fertilizers. Once we find ways to leave the planet and find additional critical resources like phosphate (actually abundant on the dark side of the moon from an ancient asteroid strike), then human reproduction can once again be unrestricted. However, right now reaching the point of finding those resources using the remaining finite resources we have-  is of utmost importance and priority.

We offer you this simplified equation to consider:  The confluence of peak petroleum and peak phosphate impacts = peak food = peak population =  population crash/decline - without appropriately sufficient and timely planning and management.

World Population Growth Visualization

If you are not accepting the undeniable logic of the combined affects of peak petroleum and peak phosphate = peak food = peak people scenario, then here's a little reading on the subject that might help change your mind: