Peak Potassium: The Next Resource War

Peak Potassium: The Next Resource War

According to an article in Aug 19, Wall Street Journal, this week saw a hostile 38 billion dollar takeover bid by Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP-Billiton for control ofPotash Corp of Saskatchewan.   This shocked investors around the world, because this event might be the opening gun of the next global “resource war.”
In his 2001 book, Hubbert’s Peak, Geologist Ken Deffeyes points out that peak oil is merely the first of many resource peaks.  He observed that in the future, many vital commodities will see production peak and then enter a long, slow, irreversible decline as consumers across the globe scramble to grab their share of a diminishing supply.  He cited potassium as the next commodity in line after oil.
We will not actually run out of potassium—it’s fairly plentiful.   What we will run out of are deposits that are sufficiently concentrated that they can be mined efficiently.    The richest such deposit is in Saskatchewan.  According to Deffeyes, the known reserves worldwide could last up to 200 years at the present rate of extraction.  However, as world population expands and as the “green revolution” replaces traditional agriculture, the amount of potassium fertilizer consumed will not remain constant—it will expand exponentially.
And a potassium shortage will be much more serious than an oil shortage. We can develop substitute strategies for energy, but potassium is a part of our bodies, and part of the plant tissues that feed our bodies.  The next time some moron tells you that we needn’t worry about running out of our natural resources because we humans are infinitely clever and can find a substitute for anything,  ask him how he will maintain the electrolytic balance in the tissues of his body (essentially, the sodium/potassium balance) without potassium.  Without this mineral, we die.   Modern commercial farmers add nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, (and calcium in the form of ag-lime) to their fields.  No modern food crop is possible without them.
About the same time as I was reading Hubbert’s Peak, I came across something by Dr. Joel Wallach, a naturopathic physician who had written a series of lectures about the mineral-deficient American diet, and the probable health consequences of this mineral insufficiency.  Wallach is a controversial figure with an interesting background.  Before getting a license to practice medicine he was a very successful veterinarian.  As part of an environmental study, he performed autopsies on thousands of zoo animals who had died for no apparent reason.  He discovered, to his horror, that in almost every case, the cause of death was a diet insufficient in some critical mineral.  But the animals were being fed unsold produce from the local supermarkets.  They were eating what we were eating—and it was killing them.
Before Dr. Wallach had become a veterinarian, he had been an agronomist, specializing in soil fertility. This gave Wallach a better perspective on the causes of the decline in the mineral content of our diet. Wallach explains, “Every plant is a little mining machine.”  Its roots suck minerals out of the soil and send them to the rest of the plant.  If the plant is then eaten by animals whose droppings fall back to the soil and whose bodies decay into the soil, then the minerals remain in place.  If the ground is farmed by subsistence farmers who live on the land and consume everything they grow, and who spread both human and animal wastes on the fields, then the result is the same. The minerals never leave the farm. But with the rise of urbanization, crops are consumed far from where they are grown.  Sewage is treated and then flows into rivers, and to the ocean–and the cycle is broken.
Wallach says that you only have to farm the same field for about 15 years before most of the minerals are gone.  Most American crop and grazing land has now been used for over 100 years, and some land has been used nearly 400 years.  Farmers add nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and lime—and that seems to make the plants grow.  But according to Wallach, we need at least a couple dozen other minerals for optimum health.   Dr. Wallach cites a government document (U. S. Senate Document # 264, 74thCongress, 2nd session, 1936) which warned even in 1936 that all of our crop and grazing land was seriously depleted in minerals.    It concluded that eventually every American would need to take a multi-mineral supplement every day, or we would suffer an epidemic of mineral deficiency diseases.  But this study was forgotten, and no action was ever taken.  What of the predicted epidemic?  Wallach says it’s here.   He cites the growing problem with type II diabetes and obesity as an example.  He says chromium and vanadium are needed to properly metabolize carbohydrates.  Without adequate chrome, the body has to make additional insulin, which eventually triggers insulin resistance.  He points out that farm animals also get type II diabetes, but about 30 years ago we began adding chrome and vanadium to their feed, and the problem completely disappeared.
But even if we take our multi-mineral pills, we will still need to grow plants to produce carbohydrate and protein–and massive amounts of potassium will be needed to do this.  As world supplies become radically more expensive, third world farmers will be priced out of the market, and will have to retreat back into subsistence agriculture. Unfortunately, these countries have allowed their population to expand far beyond the numbers that this kind of agriculture and its low yields can support.
Minerals are the currency of life.  When can we expect the final struggle for these life-sustaining elements to begin?  Apparently, it already has.