Fertilizer crunch?

The International Compost Sanitation Forum and Message Board: Global Warming and Other Environmental Threats: Fertilizer crunch?
Author: Pcinca (Pcinca)
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 2:19 pm
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The Vancouver link did not work for me the other day, but worked today- go figure. It's a good article on nutrient/phosphorus recovery from sewage plants and such environmental luminaries as Robert Kennedy Jr. of River Keepers and the NRDC was in attendance.

Thanks for posting the link Larry.

Author: Larry_warnberg (Larry_warnberg)
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 11:44 am
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Joe, I just checked the Vancouver link and it worked for me.

Author: Joe (Joe)
Sunday, May 24, 2009 - 9:51 pm
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Larry - that Vancouver link isn't working.

Author: Larry_warnberg (Larry_warnberg)
Wednesday, May 20, 2009 - 10:23 am
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Here's a report from the recent wastewater conference in Vancouver, BC highlighting the looming shortage of phosphorous. No mention of humanure composting, but there is an emphasis on the importance of recovering plant nutrients from human excreta.

Author: Larry Warnberg (Larry)
Saturday, October 04, 2008 - 10:39 am
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Humanure composters know the importance of recycling nutrients to the soil, keeping nitrates and phosphates from contaminating surface/ground water. Now there is growing public awareness that not only carbon but also nitrogen emissions are a major source of pollution causing contamination of well water and increasing dead zones in surface waters. Recently the New York Times offered the following report on our collective nitrogen footprint that may be of interest:

September 2, 2008
Beyond Carbon: Scientists Worry About Nitrogen's Effects

TOOLIK FIELD STATION, Alaska As Anne Giblin was lugging four-foot
tubes of Arctic lakebed mud from her inflatable raft to her nearby lab
this summer, she said, "Mud is a great storyteller."

Dr. Giblin, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in
Woods Hole, Mass., is part of the Long Term Ecological Research
network at an Arctic science outpost here operated by the University
of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Public discussion of complicated climate change is largely reduced to
carbon: carbon emissions, carbon footprints, carbon trading. But other
chemicals have large roles in the planet's health, and the one Dr.
Giblin is looking for in Arctic mud, one that a growing number of
other researchers are also concentrating on, is nitrogen.

In addition to having a role in climate change, nitrogen has a huge,
probably more important biological impact through its presence in
fertilizer. Peter Vitousek, a Stanford ecologist whose 1994 essay put
nitrogen on the environmental map, co-authored a study this summer in
the journal Nature that put greater attention on the nitrogen cycle
and warned against ignoring it in favor of carbon benefits.

For example, Dr. Vitousek said in an interview, "There's a great
danger in doing something like, oh, overfertilizing a cornfield to
boost biofuel consumption, where the carbon benefits are far
outweighed by the nitrogen damage."

Soon after Dr. Vitousek's report, the journal Geophysical Research
Letters branded as a "missing greenhouse gas" nitrogen trifluoride,
which is used in production of semiconductors and in liquid-crystal
displays found in many electronics. According to the report, it causes
more global warming than coal-fired plants. Nitrogen trifluoride,
which is not one of the six gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol, the
celebrated international global warming accord, is about 17,000 times
more potent than carbon dioxide. Its estimated worldwide release into
the atmosphere this year is equivalent to the total global-warming
emissions from Austria.

"The nitrogen dilemma," Dr. Vitousek added, "is not just thinking that
carbon is all that matters. But also thinking that global warming is
the only environmental issue. The weakening of biodiversity, the
pollution of rivers, these are local issues that need local attention.
Smog. Acid rain. Coasts. Forests. It's all nitrogen."

Dr. Vitousek's summer report followed a similar account in May in the
journal Science by James N. Galloway, an environmental sciences
professor at the University of Virginia and a former chairman of the
International Nitrogen Initiative, a group of scientists pushing for
smarter use of nitrogen.

Dr. Galloway is developing a universal calculator for individual
nitrogen footprints. "It's Goldilocks's problem," he said in an
interview. "Reactive nitrogen isn't a waste product. We need it
desperately. Just not too much and not too little. It's just more
complicated than carbon." He continued, "But we're not going to get
anywhere telling people this is simple or easy."

Dr. Giblin of Woods Hole spent the summer at the field station here,
midway between the Arctic Circle and the Arctic Ocean, researching the
nitrogen content of lakebed sediment not the inert nitrogen that
makes up 80 percent of air, the reactive nitrogen that Dr. Galloway
referred to. In forms like nitric acid, nitrous oxide, ammonia and
nitrate it plays a variety of roles.

Nitrogen is part of all living matter. When plants and animals die,
their nitrogen is passed into soil and the nitrogen in the soil, in
turn, nourishes plants on land and seeps into bodies of water. Dr.
Giblin is pursuing her research because as the Arctic warms, the
tundra's permafrost will thaw, and the soil will release carbon and
nitrogen into the atmosphere.

When an ecosystem has too much nitrogen, the first response is that
life blossoms. More fish, more plants, more everything. But this
quickly becomes a kind of nitrogen cancer. Waters cloud and are
overrun with foul-smelling algae blooms that can cause toxic "dead
zones." Scientists call this process eutrophication, but the laymen's
translation is that the water gets mucked up beyond all recognition. A
recent such plague bedeviled China when its Yellow Sea was smothered
in algae at Qingdao, the planned site of Olympic sailing events this
summer. More than mere inconvenience, such problems routinely threaten
many coastal areas and riverside communities.

Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities
Marine Consortium, is known as Queen of the Dead Zone. She cruises
around the Gulf of Mexico every summer in the research vessel Pelican
to look for damage from nitrogen-rich river flows into the gulf. This
year, she expects a dead zone that will beat the Massachusetts-size
8,500-square-mile bloom of 2002.

One of the problems, Dr. Rabalais said, is that the Mississippi River
involves so many communities that it requires stronger federal
guidance, which she said was not a part of the Bush administration's
policies. She is part of a national research committee financed by the
Environmental Protection Agency and run by the National Academies of
Science, but, she said, "it's so much talk and not enough action."

She continued: "Because you're not just going up against the
agribusiness lobby, but also the livelihood of farmers. It's not
exactly popular in the Midwest."

Fertilizer use is largely inefficient. With beef, only about 6 percent
of nitrogen used in raising cows ends up in their meat; the rest
leeches out into air or water supplies. With pork, it is 12 percent;
chicken, 25 percent. Milk, eggs and grain have the highest efficiency,
about 35 percent, or half of what, in the metric of report cards, is a

"Look," she said, "you just can't have all these states and all these
communities knowingly overfertilizing their land because they want a
bumper crop every year. That's just all kinds of bad. But Des Moines,
for example, is willing to filter their drinking water to an extra
degree just to be able to flood their water supply with
more-than-normal levels of fertilizer."

Reactive nitrogen competes with greenhouse gases that have greater
public awareness. "But it's like looking at malaria and AIDS in
Africa," Dr. Rabalais said. "They're both problems. And they both need
vigilant attention."

Environmentalists face the puzzle of how to deal with multiple
problems at once. And some worry that after the hard-fought campaign
spotlighting carbon, turning to focus on nitrogen could upset that

The tension can plague even the most informed and articulate
campaigners. "One of the many complexities that complicate the task
I've undertaken is complexity," said Al Gore, the former vice
president who won a Noble Peace Prize for his environmental work. Mr.
Gore added, "Look, I can start a talk by saying, 'There are 14 global
warming pollutants, and we have a different solution for addressing
each of them.' And it's true. But you start to lose people."

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Author: Larry Warnberg (Larry_warnberg)
Wednesday, April 30, 2008 - 11:44 am
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As news of global food shortages reverberate in the media, the role of fertilizers is also getting some attention. Composting humanure is still not on the radar screen, but recycling of all manures and most organic materials must surely be part of the solution to sustainable food production. The following report in the NYT reviews some of the fertilizer issues:

Shortages threaten farmers' key tool: Fertilizer
By Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin The New York Times
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Truong Thi Nha stands just four and a half feet tall. Her three grown children tower over her, just as many young people in this village outside Hanoi dwarf their parents.
The biggest reason the children are so robust: fertilizer.
Nha, her face weathered beyond its 51 years, said her growth was stunted by a childhood of hunger and malnutrition. Just a few decades ago, crop yields here were far lower and diets much worse.
Then the widespread use of inexpensive chemical fertilizer, coupled with market reforms, helped power an agricultural explosion here that had already occurred in other parts of the world. Yields of rice and corn rose, and diets grew richer.
Now those gains are threatened in many countries by spot shortages and soaring prices for fertilizer, the most essential ingredient of modern agriculture.
Some kinds of fertilizer have nearly tripled in price in the last year, keeping farmers from buying all they need. That is one of many factors contributing to a rise in food prices that, according to the United Nations' World Food Program, threatens to push tens of millions of poor people into malnutrition.
Protests over high food prices have erupted across the developing world, and the stability of governments from Senegal to the Philippines is threatened.
In the United States, farmers in Iowa eager to replenish nutrients in the soil have increased the age-old practice of spreading hog manure on fields. In India, the cost of subsidizing fertilizer for farmers has soared, leading to political dispute. And in Africa, plans to stave off hunger by increasing crop yields are suddenly in jeopardy.
The squeeze on the supply of fertilizer has been building for roughly five years. Rising demand for food and biofuels prompted farmers everywhere to plant more crops. As demand grew, the fertilizer mines and factories of the world proved unable to keep up.
Some dealers in the Midwest ran out of fertilizer last fall, and they continue to restrict sales this spring because of a limited supply.
"If you want 10,000 tons, they'll sell you 5,000 today, maybe 3,000," said W. Scott Tinsman Jr., a fertilizer dealer in Davenport, Iowa. "The rubber band is stretched really far."
Fertilizer companies are confident the shortage will be solved eventually, noting that they plan to build scores of new factories. But that will probably create fresh problems in the long run as the world grows more dependent on fossil fuels to produce chemical fertilizers. Intensified use of such fertilizers is certain to mean greater pollution of waterways, too.
Agriculture and development experts say the world has few alternatives to its growing dependence on fertilizer. As population increases and a rising global middle class demands more food, fertilizer is among the most effective strategies to increase crop yields.
"Putting fertilizer on the ground on a one-acre plot can, in typical cases, raise an extra ton of output," said Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist who has focused on eradicating poverty. "That's the difference between life and death."
The demand for fertilizer has been driven by a confluence of events, including population growth, shrinking world grain stocks and the appetite for corn and palm oil to make biofuel. But experts say the biggest factor has been the growing demand for food, especially meat, in the developing world.
Recently, Nha, the tiny Vietnamese woman, stood in a field outside her village, her weather-beaten face shielded from the drizzle by a big straw hat. She took a break from wielding her wood-handled hoe and described the meager diets of her youth. Her family, including six brothers and sisters, struggled to survive on rations from the commune where they lived, eating little protein. The occasional pigs they raised on rice stalks and mush "fattened very slowly," Nha recalled.
But with market reforms, better seeds and increased fertilizer use, Vietnam's rice yields per acre have doubled and corn yields have tripled, allowing farmers to fatten a growing herd of livestock.
Several times a season, Nha and her neighbors walk down their rows of corn with battered metal buckets full of chemical fertilizer, which looks like coarse gray sand, sprinkling a bit at the base of each plant. Nha's husband, Le Van Son, remembers villagers' amazement in the 1990s when they learned that a pound of chemical fertilizer contained more of the major nutrients than 100 pounds of manure.
Overall global consumption of fertilizer increased by an estimated 31 percent from 1996 to 2008, driven by a 56 percent increase in developing countries, according to the International Fertilizer Industry Association.
"Markets are asking farmers to step on the accelerator," said Michael Rahm, vice president for market analysis and strategic planning at Mosaic, a fertilizer producer in Plymouth, Minnesota. "They've pressed on it, but the market has told them to step on it harder."
Fertilizer is plant food, a combination of nutrients added to soil to help plants grow. The three most important are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The latter two have long been available. But nitrogen in a form that plants can absorb is scarce, and the lack of it led to low crop yields for centuries.
That limitation ended in the early 20th century with the invention of a procedure, now primarily fueled by natural gas, that draws chemically inert nitrogen from the air and converts it into a usable form.
As the use of such fertilizer spread, it was accompanied by improved plant varieties and greater mechanization. From 1900 to 2000, worldwide food production jumped by 600 percent. Scientists said that increase was the fundamental reason world population was able to rise to about 6.7 billion today from 1.7 billion in 1900.
Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, calculates that without nitrogen fertilizer, there would be insufficient food for 40 percent of the world's population, at least based on today's diets.
Initially, much of the increased production of fertilizer went to grains like wheat and rice that served as the foundation of a basic diet. But recently, with world economic growth at a brisk 5 percent a year, hundreds of millions of people began earning enough money to buy more meat from animals fattened with grains. That occurred at the same time that rising production of biofuels, like ethanol, put new pressure on grain supplies.
These factors translated into rising fertilizer demand. Prices at a terminal in Tampa, Florida, for one fertilizer, diammonium phosphate, jumped to $1,102 a ton from $393 a ton in the last year, according to JPMorgan Securities, which tracks the prices. Urea, a type of granular nitrogen fertilizer, jumped to $505 a ton from $273 a ton in the last year.
Manufacturers are scrambling to increase supply. At least 50 plants to make nitrogen fertilizer are under construction, many in the Middle East where natural gas is abundant, and phosphorous and potassium mines are being expanded. But these projects are expensive and time-consuming, and supplies are expected to remain tight for years.
Fertilizer is vitally important in Iowa, whose farmers grow more corn than in any other state and depend on fertilizer to increase yields.
But the combination of high prices and spot shortages has forced some farmers to revert to older methods of fertilization, making hog manure a hot commodity. Farmers are cutting deals to have hog barns built on the edges of their corn and soybean fields.
On a tour of his rolling farm in Oxford Junction in eastern Iowa, Jayson Willimack pointed to the future sites of two buildings that will hold 2,400 hogs. Their manure will eventually replace commercial fertilizer on 400 acres, about 10 percent of his farm, and save him perhaps $50,000 annually. "Every little bit helps," he said.
Such a strategy has severe limits — manure contains so little nitrogen that tons are required on each acre. That means farmers in Iowa and abroad have little choice but to pay the higher prices for commercial fertilizer.
In many countries, those cost increases have so far been offset by record high prices for crops. But fertilizer inflation has created a crisis in countries that subsidize fertilizer use for farmers. In India, for instance, the government's subsidy bill could be as high as $22 billion in the coming year, up from $4 billion in 2004-5.
Once new supplies become available, the rising use of fertilizer will still pose difficulties.
Environmental groups fear increased use, particularly of nitrogen fertilizer made using fossil fuels. Because plants do not absorb all the nitrogen, much of it leaches into streams and groundwater. That runoff has long been recognized as a major pollution problem, and it is growing.
A barometer of the pollution is the rising number of dead zones where rivers meet the sea. In the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, nitrogen runoff from fields in the Corn Belt washes downstream and feeds plant life in the gulf. The algae blooms suck oxygen from the water, killing other marine life.
More than 400 dead zones have been identified, from the coasts of China to the Chesapeake Bay, and the primary reason is agricultural runoff, said Robert Diaz, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
"Nitrogen is nitrogen," Professor Diaz said. "If it's on land, it produces corn. If it gets in the water, it produces algae."
This month, a United Nations panel called for changes in agricultural practices to make them less damaging. The panel recommended techniques that offer some of the same benefits as chemical fertilizer, like increased crop rotation with legumes that naturally add some nitrogen to the soil.
But others say those approaches, while helpful, will be not be enough to meet the world's rapidly rising demand for food and biofuel.
"This is a basic problem, to feed 6.6 billion people," said Norman Borlaug, an American scientist who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in spreading intensive agricultural practices to poor countries. "Without chemical fertilizer, forget it. The game is over."

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