Believe it or not, climate change and "Peak Oil" are not the biggest problems facing the 21st century. "Peak Phosphorus" could hit sooner and harder, threatening food supplies for half the Earth's population. Phosphorus is a fertilizing nutrient that is vital to large-scale agriculture, and currently it can only be mined, but supplies are growing shorter and shorter.
Fortunately, there may be a solution. Ostara, a Canadian-based company backed in part by environmental legend Robbert Kennedy Jr., has patented a technique to extract valuable chemicals out of the waste stream (i.e.: sewage). The result is called "Crystal Green" a slow-release chemical fertilizer that contains high levels of phosphorus and is extracted from an abundant, ever-flowing resource ... sewage.
Intentionally or not, the brand name bears a remarkable similarity to "Soylent Green," the 1973 cult classic in which an undercover cop discovers that an agribusiness giant is peddling poop to satisfy a world hunger crisis. The book "Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison which was the basis for the film was not, it turns out, terribly off the mark.
In the novel, 2022 was the year that marked a depletion of world food stocks due to overpopulation and resource depletion. A new study by Foreign Policy (as reported in the NYT) confirms Harrison's fears of a collapsing agricultural system. About 90 percent of the world's phosphorus supplies are controlled by five countries, and they warn that as soon as 2040, this limited resource could be lost forever if we don't get better at reclaiming our discarded phosphorus.
Ostara has been testing their PEARL chemical reactor in a Candian sewage plant with great results and now a plant near Portland, Ore., has implemented a full-scale version of the reactor which produces 500 tons of fertilizer per year.
It's interesting to note that the technology was pioneered not to save the planet from famine, but to solve a problem in sewage plants in which a build up of ammonia and phosphorus clogs pipes and causes waste streams that are toxic to the environment. The result is a win-sin situation — cleaner waste water and a mineral fertilizer that acts as an added revenue source for sewage treatment plants.
Most importantly, it offers a way out of the nightmare of "Peak Phosphorus."
Here's me talking about it on Planet 100: