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Peak Soil: It's Like Peak Oil, Only Worse

By Matthew Wild

13 May, 2010
Peak Generation

Resource collapse is bigger than peak oil, and bigger even than the projected depletion of natural gas, coal and uranium – it encompasses each and every natural resource extracted, exploited or otherwise processed on an industrial scale.

This is not to deny peak oil, or the subsequent decline of all the other hydrocarbons that are essential to our lives and economies; the point is that even if we switched to renewable energy tomorrow, we would still not be out of the mess that we’re in. We’re experiencing problems with our living environment – climate, soil and water – that are more than just energy issues.

Once again, Hubbert’s model can be applied to any finite resource we extract from the Earth. If it’s tragic that we are burning through all available resources with no thought for future consequences, it’s worse still to think that the payback will likely happen all together. We will probably find ourselves dealing with a widespread hydrocarbons collapse right when we have to face a greatly reduced global capacity to grow crops and find people enough water to drink.

The peak debate, although on the surface about energy security, comes back to food supply. So here I’m going to look at peak soil, peak water and peak phosphorous.

Peak soil

The world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it. At the same time, population is growing exponentially – 9.3 billion by 2050, according to UN projections.

Areas of the world – particularly northern China, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Australia are already losing large tracts of arable land. Soil management is about more than heaping on chemical fertilizers. A 2008 New York Times article, Scientists focus on making better soil to help with food concerns, that examined the complex nature of simple dirt found that:
Soil does not arise quickly. In nature it starts with a layer of glacial grit,or windblown sand, or cooled lava, or alluvial silt, or some other crumbled mineral matter. A few pioneer plants put down shallow roots, and living things begin to make their homes in and on the surface, enriching it with their excrement, and enriching it further when they die and rot.

The resulting organic matter feeds a whole underground ecology that aerates the soil, fixes nutrients, and makes it more hospitable for plant life, and over time the process feeds back on itself. If the soil does not wash away or get parched by drought, it very gradually thickens. It takes tens of thousands of years to make 15 centimeters of topsoil, about 6 inches' worth.
The UN’s Global Environment outlook, published 2007, states: “Deficiency of plant nutrients in the soil is the most significant biophysical factor limiting crop production across very large areas in the tropics.”

Peak water

The term peak water comes from the fact that much of the world’s drinking water lies in underground aquifers and in lakes, which behaves like a finite resource by being depleted. According to the UN’s Global Environment Outlook:

By 2025, about 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under conditions of water stress – the threshold for meeting the water requirements for agriculture, industry, domestic purposes, energy and the environment (UN Water 2007). This will have major impacts on activities such as farming. . .

As things stand right now, every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. Water is an urgent issue. Especially as, due to climate change, many parts of the world are becoming drier.

Himalayan glaciers that are the principal dry-season water sources of Asia's biggest rivers - Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Yellow - could disappear. An international conferrence in Kathmandu recently heard a UN report that, if temperatures continue to rise "there will be no snow and ice in the Himalayas in 50 years." Under the headline Vanishing Himalayan Glaciers Threaten a Billion, we read of the unimaginably vast scope of climate change:

Thousands of glaciers in the Himalayas are the source of water for nine major
Asian rivers whose basins are home to 1.3 billion people from Pakistan to
Myanmar, including parts of India and China. . .

Peak phosphorus

Phosphorus is essential for plant life. It is removed from the soil by plants, and, in the case of agriculture, returned through fertilizers – along with nitrogen and potassium. Most of the world’s agricultural land does not have enough phosphate, so this is vital if an increasing global population is to be fed.

Phosphate rocks are mined to produce the fertilizer; when their output drops, so does that of our agriculture. The paper Peak phosphorus, by Patrick Déry and Bart Anderson, states:

In the literature, estimates before we "run out" of phosphorus range from 50 to
130 years. This date is conveniently far enough in the future so that immediate action does not seem necessary. However, as we know from peak oil analysis,trouble begins not when we "run out" of a resource, but when production peaks.From that point onward, the resource becomes more difficult to extract and more expensive.
An April 2010 Foreign Policy article by James Elser and Stuart White, again titled Peak phosphorus, is essential reading because it shows just how insidious the current phosphorus issue is:

Increased demand for fertilizer and the decreased supply of phosphorus exports will result in higher prices, significantly affecting millions of farmers in the developing world who live on the brink of bankruptcy and starvation. Rising fertilizer prices could tip this balance.

Already, signs are emerging that our current practices cannot continue for long. Between 2003 and 2008, phosphate fertilizer prices rose approximately 350 percent. In 2008, rising food prices sparked riots in more than 40 countries. Although the spike in fertilizer prices was only partially responsible for the higher food prices, the riots illustrate the social upheaval caused by disruptions to the world's food supply. The 2008 food riots were only stopped by government promises of food subsidies -- a viable strategy only as long as governments can afford the ever-increasing costs of food support.
Phosphorous is not destroyed when it’s used and so could be recovered and recycled. It’s more productive to prevent soil erosion, and come up with more precise ways to apply fertilizer. The Foreign Policy article continues that if we fail to use the limited phosphorous that remains in a sustainable way, millions will starve:

If we fail to meet this challenge, humanity faces a Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced. The geopolitical impacts of such disruptions will be severe, as an increasing number of states fail to provide their citizens with a sufficient food supply.
A decline in phosphorous output has the potential to cause more death, especially in developing countries, than that of oil.


It’s wrong to assume these issues will only apply to the poorest of the poor in the developing nations – it’s just that they, like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, will be hit first to die. When post-peak oil prices cause the already weakened Western economies to slump into terminal recession/depression, we too will find ourselves living marginal lives. Then it may well be our turn.

Just as we will face a global energy crisis, we will be forced to come to terms with some equally urgent issues. The global population is rising exponentially. Soil is becoming poorer throughout most of the world, and access to clean water more scarce. According to the UN, by the mid-2020s, two-thirds of the world’s population may struggle to find enough water to meet their needs. A decline in phosphorous by itself could pose a “Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced.”

In addition, we are facing the very real prospect of global climate change. (Stepping around the political games, climate is changing. Parts of the world are becoming drier, and some more prone to flooding.)

So, the world is facing a hydrocarbons peak, right as we are beginning to struggle with soil, the nutrients required for large scale agriculture, environmental change and availability of water. When you put the disparate elements together, it begins to look like a perfect storm.

(Abridged from the page Environmental Resource Collapse. .)