Ted Talk on Phosphorus in Farming

You may have already heard of the myriad of detrimental effects of industrial farming practices. Here is a deeper look into one of them: Mohamed Hijri: A simple solution to the coming phosphorus crisis. In this talk, Hijri discusses the shortage of phosphorus we are creating by mining for phosphorus to put into chemical fertilizers for industrial farms.

Why is this problem important? Hijri describes why our bodies need phosphorus: cellular communication, cell structure, and energy (ATP) production. It is also a vital component of our DNA. And if our plants don’t get these nutrients, neither will we. Industrial farming practices deplete soil of many vital nutrients, not just phosphorus, and so these farms add chemical fertilizers to replenish these essential elements.ted

Hijri’s solution to the phosphorus shortage is really neat. There is a symbiosis called mycorrhiza in which fungus attaches to the root systems of plants and drastically increases their absorption of phosphorus, meaning we wouldn’t need to add as much phosphorus to the soil, thereby reducing the pace at which we use up the mined resource. Also, this higher absorption rate leaves less phosphorus in the soil, reducing excess phosphorus run-off that causes other detrimental effects down the line, like toxic blue-green algae overgrowth. However, perhaps I am missing something from the talk, but this solution doesn’t seem to solve what he claims is the root case: our mines will run out. Utilization of mycorrhiza will drastically slow down this inevitable effect, but not prevent it from happening.

I would argue that the main problem is that we need to mine for phosphorus in the first place. What if we focused on eliminating this need by moving away from industrial farming practices altogether? Hijri assumes we need industrial farming in order to produce enough yield to feed our growing population. I am not a scientists and admittedly have not studied this subject extensively, but the Union of Concerned Scientists advocates for a number of sustainable farming strategies in order to protect the health of our future generations.

One component of sustainable farming is organic fertilizer. When a farm’s phosphorus comes from bone meal, or seabird guano, for example, we eliminate the need to harvest our phosphorus mines to exhaustion. Add to that Hijri’s fungus solution, and we have even more efficient plants. Even better, we also get the vast number of other benefits of sustainable farming practices, like less pollution and global warming, healthier surrounding ecosystems, less antibiotic resistance, less pesticide resistance, and farms that last for future generations. How cool is that?