No Substitute for P

No, this will not be another bit about the joys of garden anointments from full bladders. This particular P also does not grow on a vine in said garden. This one is, however, the reason why we will have a garden at all. Or health or life at all, for that matter. This P is phosphorus and its chemical cousin, phosphate.

Phosphorus is a limiting factor, a finite and vanishing earth-mineral resource that is built into the design of living things. It is in our bones and teeth, in every cell membrane of every cell of every living membraned thing (as part of the “phospho-lipid bilayer” you might have learned about in biology class if you weren’t texting your girlfriend.)

And we whiz away P with our pee–so much so that it precipitates out into the lining of the pipes at sewage treatment plants. And what passes on finds its way–together with the readily-leached agriculturally-applied rock phosphate as well as nitrogen–into the oceans, where, it over-fertilizes the plankton and creates the famous Red Tides and ever-popular Dead Zones.

The rate of phosphate use far exceeds the rate of phosphate recovery. We are flushing away some of the best hope of feeding the future. But it is not too late to change to become self-sufficient at least with regard to this strategic resource before we go to war with China or Morocco–the only other exporters of the stuff.

You’ll find many ideas for not treating our soil like dirt and other means of “upcycling” in the excerpt in Scientific American from the new book Upcycle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (Cradle to Cradle.)

One subject I learned about here was the “harvesting” of struvite–basically kidney stones–from the clogged pipes of sewage treatment plants. These pellets contain just the right mix of phosphorus compounds from flushed and otherwise-wasted human urine to provide slow feeding of field crops. This is not yet a common industrial recovery practice, but should become so right away.

Like the honeybee and the bats, we desperately need to shift our attention to those tiny cogs in the great machinery of our fragile civilization. Once they become extinct or flushed into the ocean, our Humpty-Dumpty world won’t be able to fix itself.

Can Soil Replace Oil as a Source of Energy? [Excerpt]: Scientific American

The Story of Phosphorus: 8 reasons why we need to rethink the management of phosphorus resources in the global food system

Peak Phosphorus: the sequel to Peak Oil 

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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