2 The Peak Phosphorus debate...

phosphate mining2In the third of a series of three, Mike Atherton looks at the Peak Phosphorus Debate and, having followed many paths in his quest to quench his unrelenting curiosity, ends up talking a load of ...

As I come to pen this, the final article in a series of three, I find myself in contemplative mood. I have read, and re-read all of my research on the Phosphorus industry over and over again - a path I initially set out on a little over two years ago. During one of my routine, late night research sessions of alternative products and plant/soil management strategies, I stumbled across the term 'Peak Phosphorus'. "What is this Peak Phosphorus?" I recall asking myself.

My painfully annoying inquisitive streak kicked in, and off I set on a path of what I can only describe as a very, very long road. Prior to stumbling across the Peak Phosphorus debate, my knowledge of the product was pretty much limited to what I had been told by visiting sales reps, read in glossy sales brochures, or the smattering of information gleaned from the texts of a couple of vocational qualifications which I undertook a little earlier in my career, so not a great deal in all honesty.

Whilst on this eye opening path, many roads have been followed, as my unrelenting curiosity has driven me to research one linked subject after another. As I have written about several facets of the phosphate rock industry in the last two articles in this series, I now find myself finishing the series of articles where this journey started out for me.

The Peak Phosphorus debate:

PeakPhosphorusCurveThe term Peak Phosphorus is a descriptive of the moment when demand for phosphate rock will exceed supply. Phosphate Rock is a finite resource and, given the ever increasing demands for its use, economically extractable reserves are dwindling. Current estimates suggest that we could reach that time as early as 2030, with total stocks being exhausted within 50-100 years, though these figures are hotly contested within the geological sector - some researchers state that phosphate rock reserves will not diminish for at least 200 years.

Whilst I am no geologist and, therefore, am unable to give an accurate timescale for this ever looming shortage, I am acutely aware of the potential impacts that such a shortage can have on our industry.

We have already experienced something of a precursor to the Peak Phosphorus issue. Those that recall the unexpected, overnight 800% price hike in phosphate rock in 2007/8 would do well to recall the day that their sales reps called to inform them of this economic meltdown - I have a clear recollection of one of my preferred sales reps apologetically explaining the situation to me during a routine visit.

The cause of this overnight hike was several fold - China had imposed a 135% export tariff, Moroccan rock phosphate prices tripled, rising energy and transport costs were prevalent, and the increasing demand for phosphate rock for the production of biofuel was at an all time high - the latter point being perhaps the most influential of all. My current question remains the same as it was back in 2008 - if the fertiliser prices are so vulnerable in respect of market volatility, do we really want to be beholden to products which are subject to such market forces?

DollarsPerTonneThe economics of the situation are simple - easily extractable, high quality ores are diminishing rapidly - this fact brings severe economic impacts. Newly located deposits of phosphate rock are generally of a lower quality ore, and are typically more difficult to mine than current stocks - these issues bring additional production costs, and these costs have to be passed on to someone.

Though the amenity sector only plays a very small part in terms of global phosphorus usage, we will most likely be one of the first industries to suffer the effects of Peak Phosphorus, with economics of scale being the prime driver of increasing costs to the end user. Much larger industries, such as agriculture and the ever expanding biofuel sectors, will continue to dominate the global supply chain, leaving the only option for the amenity industry sources with grossly inflated purchase costs.

This is not a scenario that we in the amenity industry are unfamiliar with - I will point to the grossly disproportionate costs of various amenity herbicides, fungicides and other such products, in comparison with their agricultural counterpart products, which are often identical in composition and concentration. It seems apparent to me that the amenity sector is already accustomed to over inflated pricing, courtesy of economics of scale.

It would also seem reasonable to suggest that the immediate future of phosphate fertilisers for amenity use will see significant and continuous price increases - the market will simply demand that this be the case.

In the longer term, scarcity of the mineral will lead to Morocco owning the monopoly on global phosphate rock - something which it already lays claim to, with approximately 80% of the global economically extractable reserves. This fact comes with something of a geopolitical risk however, as a large portion of the phosphate rock which is laid claim to by Morocco is actually located in the Western Sahara - a region that is considered to be an occupied territory; and one where tensions have been fraught for a number of years at that.

soil food web

The Peak Phosphorus issue simply isn't going to go away any time soon - the days of increased costs and scarcity loom large in our futures. Furthermore, to say that this issue has not been long acknowledged would be incorrect. In his address to the US Congress in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the issue of phosphorus sustainability: "Therefore, the question of continuous and adequate supplies of phosphate rock directly concerns the national welfare… It is, therefore, high time for the Nation to adopt a national policy for the production and conservation of phosphates for the benefit of this and coming generations."

I don't know if this is just my particular mindset, but I find it quite remarkable that an issue identified at US Senate level some seventy-seven years ago, has proven to come to fruition, not only in the USA, but that the threat is repeated in the current global market, yet production continues to grow exponentially with seemingly little focus, or demand from end users on alternative sources.

Keeping all of the above information in mind, I can only ask that we, as an industry, and I include the amenity supply sector in this call, collectively seek alternatives to preserve our future productivity and cost effectiveness.

It is a fact that we operate in a demand driven industry - that is to say that we, as groundsmen, are in a position to shape the supply industry - and, with that, comes a reliance on suppliers to meet end users demands.

I believe that there are technologies available, and alternative practices that can meet our agronomic requirements whilst minimising the environmental and economic burdens of the current practices - it is just a case of finding them. So, what are the options then?

Back to basics management

I read, a lot. I read the magazines, I read the sales brochures, I scour the internet for scientific journals, and I daren't calculate how much I have spent on books in recent years, but I read and research as much as I can for a reason.

White fertiliser pellets 010

In years gone by, I have fallen into the 'believe everything you hear' trap. I have seen the latest glossy presentations regarding each and every new product that comes along with a fancy strap line, and I have even used the odd 'miracle product' on occasion, but I can honestly say that I have never been blown away by the results - I have been more amazed at the impact these products have on my annual budget than on the quality of my turf.

With all due respect to the companies that work hard to bring these products to market, many of them simply will not replace the basic fundamental requirements of the grasses that we manage - adequate levels of light, water, air, mineral constituents and soil biota all need to be in place before we even consider spending what are often significant sums of money on a product that simply will not offset a limitation of one of the aforementioned factors.

As groundsmen, one of our key duties is to ensure that the aforementioned factors are in place, but please note, not in excess, as Shelford's Law of Tolerance alludes to. It is very easy to fall into the trap of becoming reliant on a myriad of products rather than the fundamental principles of turf management - high quality turf can be achieved with meagre resources and inputs.

In the second of this series of articles, I referred to the biological aspect of turf management on numerous occasions. The biological aspect covers many facets - some like to add biostimulants, others may use compost teas, and even specific strains of bacteria or fungi to serve a specific purpose. There are demonstrated results of this type of management regimen at several venues, so it is certainly not without foundation; however, for every success story, there is a failure. This path of biological turf management is extremely complex, and I do not think that science has all of the answers as yet - I'm afraid that it is not a simple case of adding a biostimulant and being done with it - successful biological turf management requires an 'all in' mentality, rather than a monthly application of an 'elixir' on top of an already chemically overburdened soil.

I think that it is fair to say that science is not yet in a position to provide us with quantifiable, repeatable and predictable results, though there are a number of basic principles which are proven to aid with microbial turnover and acquisition of mineral nutrients from the soil, and I am a firm believer in adopting them.

In terms of fertilisers, it's all in the amounts, and of what we apply. Yes, some forms of fertiliser are more damaging to soil biota than others - many that make every effort to protect the soil biota will often quote salt indexes when talking mineral fertilisers. I, on the other hand, prefer to focus on the quantities first and foremost. I believe that the role of soil biota mining for nutrients is often underestimated, and I believe that excessive levels of fertilisation suppress several natural phosphorus acquisition mechanisms, amongst other negative effects.

HumanExcretiaCaption: In the early part of the 20th Century, each year in China more than 182,000,000 tonnes of human manure was collected in cities and villages - 450 kilogrammes (900 pounds) per person per year. This was good for a total of 1,160,000 tonnes of nitrogen, 376,000 tonnes of potassium and 150,000 tonnes of phosphate, which was returned to the soil. In 1908 Japan, 23,850,295 tonnes of "humanure" was collected and given back to the soil.

As I remarked in the first in this series of articles, mycorrhizal acquisition is often found to be redundant in soils where excess levels of phosphorus are present - I would also add the fact that applications of inorganic phosphorus can repress phosphatase enzymatic activity which, in itself, is a product of microbial activity.

In the last article, I also remarked about the vagaries of soil testing, with several different soil testing methodologies being commonplace, and more benchmark figures in place than I could care to recite. I have long questioned the 'recommended' guidelines and, in recent years, have adjusted my own fertiliser methodology to fall in line with MLSN (Minimum Level of Sustainable Nutrition) guidelines. My philosophy is to apply the minimum amount of fertiliser possible, whilst achieving the desired result.

This is achieved on a 'little and often' basis - all in an effort to ensure that at no point in time is there an excess of any nutrient over and above what the plant requires, thereby avoiding the 'peaks and troughs' that can be so disruptive to the microbial biota and their acquisition mechanisms.

Struvite A cross section of pipeWhilst the path that I now follow may seem like the new 'latest fad' in terms of fertiliser programming, I would have to say that this ideal is far from new, it is just the terminology that has been given to a long acknowledged process of 'spoon feeding'.

I have already discussed Shelford's Law of Tolerance in the second in this series of articles, but perhaps it was the medieval alchemist, Paracelsus (1493-1541) who said it best: "All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous."

In short, dose rate matters, and overdosing is often more problematic than a limited supply. The above falls in line with the basic principle that all living organisms should maintain a balanced nutrient supply - nothing in limitation, or excess.

Throughout this series of articles, I have referred to the use of various forms of excreta, particularly in days gone by. Whilst it is not uncommon to see organic fertilisers used today, these are usually based on animal manures or recycled green wastes - both of which I am a big fan of. With that said, one source has seemingly been omitted from the fertiliser chain - human excreta. The advent of modern sewerage systems has opened up the phosphorus cycle, whereby what could be considered as a valuable, renewable phosphorus source is lost to the sea and, with that, comes significant environmental issues. Yes, it is a fact that use of human excreta has caused severe epidemics in the past; however, we now live in a time where technology is able to expel these risks.

Biosolids from waste treatment plants have proven to be a valuable source of plant available phosphorus in many areas, but concerns do exist regarding the safety of the final product, particularly in respect of the heavy metals content of the product. There is a large body of regulations and guidelines regarding the use of biosolids in the agricultural sector and, though the codes of practice could be adopted for amenity uses, it seems that conventional treated biosolids are not a realistic option. As technology has advanced, however, a more recent development has been brought to into the marketplace.

Struvite is most commonly known as a problematic by-product of the wastewater processing industry. The struvite accumulates in pipework, centrifuges and pumps, thereby reducing processing efficiency and increasing wastewater processing costs markedly.


There is now technology in place to extract the elements that combine to form struvite in wastewater systems, and turn it into a highly efficient phosphate fertiliser. Canadian company Ostara currently leads the way in developing and implementing this technology - there are now several plants located around the world, including one in London, which is operated by Thames Water.

In respect of the actual product which is brought to market, there are a number of benefits over mined phosphate rock. Firstly, struvite is not water soluble - the mode of release is via citrate solubility - as plants exude citric acid, this in turn releases a given amount of plant available phosphorus from the struvite crystals. The phosphorus release pattern is aligned to the production of citric acid from the plant matter; therefore, excess levels of plant available phosphorus are never an issue.

The environmental benefits are also plain to see - struvite is a renewable phosphorus source, which takes us away from the current over reliance on an increasingly limited finite resource. Leaching is also reduced, efficiency is much improved over traditional phosphate rock sourced products, and one point that I find to be of particular importance, is the lack of contaminants - a quick check of the data sheets shows far reduced level of contaminants and heavy metals in comparison to other sources.

Throughout the course of the three articles I have written on this subject, I have referred to the use of human excreta in ages gone by several times - it is my belief that, sometimes, we have to look backwards to move forwards - it would seem that struvite brings an accurate and timely reflection to this mantra.

It would seem like Aldous Huxley may well have been onto something when he wrote the following in his novel, Point Counter Point (1928): "With your intensive agriculture, you're simply draining the soil of phosphorus. More than half of one percent per year. Going clean out of circulation. And then you throw away hundreds of thousands of tons of phosphorus pentoxide in your sewage! Pouring it into the sea. And you call that progress?"

The issue of an 'open' phosphorus sink has been acknowledged by many for any number of years - perhaps it is a lack of technology that has precluded the closing of the 'phosphate loop', or maybe the size of the commercial phosphate rock market, along with the relatively cheap prices of phosphate rock has contributed to the suppression of technological development which has the potential to bring useable sources of excreta to our doorstep.

For whatever the reasons may have been, there are solutions to the long standing issues of our reliance of mined phosphate rock available to us now - it would be my advice to look closely at alternative sources before peak phosphorus impacts upon our budgets and supply chains.

To bring closure to this series of articles, I could only now offer my candid thoughts on the issues at hand.

As a practising groundsman, my focus has always solely been on the turf and soils that I work with. Product knowledge and selection has came from what the amenity industry 'communicates' to me, so the issues that I have focused on within this series of issues came as much of a surprise to me once I started looking beyond the boundaries of the amenity industry and researching the wider subject in depth.

The environmental issues are without question, unacceptable and, to a certain extent, avoidable. The ongoing supply issues are a fact, even if timing is a subject of ongoing geological debate - one certainty is that economically driven scarcity will be relevant to all of us before long.

MikeAthertonThe agronomic issues of over reliance on inorganic fertiliser applications are once again, entirely avoidable, but this is a serious point of concern for me - a large body of misinformation is passed on to many in this industry, often driven by financial gain. I have had many examples of this in my sixteen years of practising turf management, and yes, on occasion, naivety has got the better of me, so it is a cause of immense frustration when I hear of such misinformation being peddled by a spurious few.

I would encourage all to do their own research in respect of the topics that I have covered in this series of articles. I would hope that some take up the mantle and explore the wider subject, as it will be the knowledge that is gained, the willingness to acknowledge the issues at hand, and the drive to shape the future of our industry that brings the changes that are required to our industry.

Finally, if nothing else, it is my sincere hope that this series of articles has proven to be thought provoking for some of you.

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