Brexit is not the only threat to the cost of living

Brexit price increases could affect poorer households most” – but the projected shortages of fertilizer as a result of phosphate depletion will have a much more serious long term impact on world food prices and food security

The ESRI Economic and Social Research Institute is Ireland’s independent source of evidence for policy. Their latest report states that a hard Brexit would increase the cost of living for all households in Ireland by 2 per cent to 3.1 per cent – an annual increase of €892 to €1,360 per household.

However bad the impact of this hard Brexit may be; a much greater food price and food security crisis is coming down the road at us and we are making no efforts at present to prepare for it.  The cause of this probable future food price and supply crisis is that the world is quickly running out of phosphorus.

To grow crops, farmers need phosphorus to be included in their fertilizer. We are all well aware of “10, 10, 20.” These are the 3 nutrients that are all required in commercial fertilizer to make crops grow. One of these three is phosphorus. Most of this phosphate is no longer sourced from animal excrement as we did in the past. Today with a much bigger world population of over 7 billion people the greatest majority of this mineral is now mined from rock.

This mineral resource however is finite and we cannot replace it. Phosphate rock is a key element in the production of fertiliser; it has no substitute and it is non-renewable.  Because it has been so cheap to buy in the past we have been constantly wasting it. This finite resource however is expected to be completely depleted in another 100 to 150 years but before this end point we could see volatile or unaffordable phosphate and food prices in another 30 to 60 years.

We should be recycling this important resource; but instead we are wasting it. Nutrients used on farms sometimes end up in our rivers and lakes. The nitrogen and phosphorus in the waste water discharge from septic tanks end up in the ground where it cannot be recovered to grow crops. These nutrients might also enter the water table and eventually end up in nearby rivers causing algal blooms. The sewage sludge from big cities is being used less often on agricultural land because of concerns’ and increasing awareness over toxic metals and ingested pharmaceuticals. We are not recovering and composting enough waste food so that it can be used to fertilize agricultural land. These wasteful practices must end and instead we should be recycling phosphorus safely in order to grow crops.

This is the phosphorus challenge for the next 30 to 40 years. This is when some experts project the increase in food prices. We must therefore waste much less and recycle as much as possible. Any shortfall between supply and demand will put a greater upward pressure on food prices than is likely to be the case from the effects of Brexit.

The European Phosphorus Platform explains that the biggest source of phosphorus originates from human excrement, urine and faeces. They in turn warn of social unrest as has often happened in the past as a result of food price increases or shortages. Food rioting has happened in Ireland in the past because of food price increases or shortages; it can happen again.

Irish Water has its hands full at present in dealing with the shortfall of water infrastructure investment. Moreover Irish sewage treatment systems were never designed to recover phosphorus safely from waste water without having toxic metals or ingested pharmaceuticals; to safely grow food crops.

For single houses away from cities it will also take many decades for the plumbing systems to be changed to separate urine or faeces from the rest of the much bigger volume of grey water. In Ireland we have none of the experience of toilet composting or urine separation systems that they have in Scandinavia. In Ireland we also have no cultural interest in recycling of resources. All this must change over the coming decades if we are to avoid a future of rising food prices when the phosphorus depletion problem around the world really becomes a reality.