Published On: Thu, Nov 15th, 2012

Two key fertilisers are running out. When they are gone we will starve- Jeremy Grantham

Jeremy Grantham, the world famous financier who warned of the 1989 Tokyo stock market crash, US growth stocks crash in 2000 and the financial sector crash in 2007, is seriously concerned about climate change and food production.  He writes in Nature this month that after 100 years of falling prices, commodities have been on a rise since 2002 due to population growth and China:

The price index of 33 important commodities declined by 70% over the 100 years up to 2002 — an enormous help to industrialized countries in getting rich. Only one commodity, oil, had been flat until 1972 and then, with the advent of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, it began to rise. But since 2002, prices of almost all the other commodities, plus oil, tripled in six years; all without a world war and without much comment. Even if prices fell tomorrow by 20% they would still on average have doubled in 10 years, the equivalent of a 7% annual rise.

This price surge is a response to global population growth and the explosion of capital spending in China.

He adds a warning about food production:

Especially dangerous to social stability and human well-being are food prices and food costs. Growth in the productivity of grains has fallen to 1.2% a year, which is exactly equal to the global population growth rate. There is now no safety margin.

And how two key fertiliser ingredients, phosphate and potash, are mined and are running out.  There are no alternatives:

Then there is the impending shortage of two fertilizers: phosphorus (phosphate) and potassium (potash). These two elements cannot be made, cannot be substituted, are necessary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted. It’s a scary set of statements. Former Soviet states and Canada have more than 70% of the potash. Morocco has 85% of all high-grade phosphates. It is the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history.

“It is crucial that scientists sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on global warming.”

What happens when these fertilizers run out is a question I can’t get satisfactorily answered and, believe me, I have tried. There seems to be only one conclusion: their use must be drastically reduced in the next 20–40 years or we will begin to starve.

He criticises energy companies for their propaganda and ownership of US Congress for creating a debate about climate change, when there is in fact no debate amongst scientists:

The world’s blind spot when it comes to the fertilizer problem is seen also in the shocking lack of awareness on the part of governments and the public of the increasing damage to agriculture by climate change; for example, runs of extreme weather that have slashed grain harvests in the past few years. Recognition of the facts is delayed by the frankly brilliant propaganda and obfuscation delivered by energy interests that virtually own the US Congress. (It is not unlike the part played by the financial industry when investment bubbles start to form … but that, at least, is only money.) We need oil producers to leave 80% of proven reserves untapped to achieve a stable climate. As a former oil analyst, I can easily calculate oil companies’ enthusiasm to leave 80% of their value in the ground — absolutely nil.

Read the full article here.


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  • billb

    This is terrifying , but the human race has proved to be adaptable before. One known solution is to move away from industrial agriculture, and grow our own food in a sustainable way. Visit the link to see a project called ‘The Greenest Home’. It is designed to stand alone through energy and food solutions. It has a garden roof and big window bays for growing food 24/7. It has a full array of PV panels and a wind turbine.

  • Michael Holster, PE, LEED AP

    Tristan, another good article. Current agriculture is unsustainable. Food, energy and water are all connected. Another reason we need radical change now!
    Posted by Michael Holster, PE, LEED AP

  • Laura Bozzay

    I remember reading about how some Colonial Americans made potash. Here is a site that explains how to make it.
    Posted by Laura Bozzay

  • Lori Gonzales

    If we look at it from only the point of agribusiness, then it could prove to be a catastrophic; however, there are alternatives not presently used within the industry. One of the reasons, as to why there is such a great need for fertilizer, is because the agricultural industry has embraced and developed practices geared toward monoculture. One solution is to move away from those practices. Crop rotation and the replenishment of soils using organic materials reduces the need for fertilizers.
    Posted by Lori Gonzales

  • Two key fertilisers are running out. When they are gone we will starve- Jeremy Grantham – History Future Now

  • Cretius

    I agree with Lori. Commercial fertilizer did not come into general use before 1947. I grew up on farms in 40s to early 60s and we did not use expensive commercial fertilizer. We followed crop rotation and fallow field practices. We also spread all available manure onto the fields. So we may have to change our farming methods. Hear that Monsanto? North America has sufficient farmland to revert to the old ways as needed. The rest of the world is the question mark.

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