A key birdshit shortage

Written By: - Date published: 12:39 pm, January 30th, 2009 - 9 comments
Categories: farming, national/act government - Tags:

Limestone karst after phosphate mining in Nauru

Limestone karst after phosphate mining in Nauru

Our economy depends on other key resources apart from oil. For instance our farming sector still depends heavily on using phosphates to increase soil fertility. Since our farming sector provides at more than half of the export income, it got a little disturbing to read about the limited security of supply.

phosphateFor most of last century farmers have been steadily mining out the world supply of guano which is the major source of concentrated phosphate deposits. This has resulted in islands like Nauru being leveled down to bedrock and karst. A large chunk of their population largely relocated to NZ.

The importance of phosphate to the type of farming we do in New Zealand cannot be over-emphasized. The FarmGeek says

NZ currently uses about a million tones of phosphate fertiliser each year. Its use underpins our entire agricultural economy so in the context of global shortages of oil and other resources, it should play a big part of our discussions. According to the U.S. Geological Survey ‘There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture’ (organic and permaculture aside).

World rock phosphate production

World rock phosphate production

What is worrying is that..

We currently import 80% of our phosphate fertiliser from Morocco.

Apart from the fact that the phosphate comes from the disputed Western Sahara, the area isn’t exactly politically stable. The Oil Drum describes the recent state in Algeria & Morocco: Natural Gas Cartels, Fertilizer Mercantilism, and Rising Tensions – the title says it all really.

The FarmGeek points out that the price of phosphate had a 10 fold increase in price last year. It is probably coming down now as demand lessens with recession cutbacks in farming expansion. There is a single major deposit in NZ at Milton that FarmGeek says

This deposit could provide us with 10 years of self-sufficiency in phosphate if it proves viable to extract it. Once world phosphate supplies start to decline, they are gone forever so surely the smart thing would be to keep ours in the ground as long as possible, giving us a 10 year window to mitigate against peak phosphate by adopting new practices. Industrial agriculture and horticulture will not exist without an abundant cheap supply of phosphates and we know a time is coming when they will be gone.

Something as vital as a 10 year reserve of phosphate should be nationalised as part of a complete food security strategy – this is simply too important to leave it to the markets to decide what to do.

Yeah right! I can just see this do-nothing government doing something as forward looking as that (and interfering with the markets as well!).  It is hard enough to for them to admit that there are resource limits anywhere that the market is unable to handle – for instance in the ability of the biosphere to suck up greenhouse gases.

However this is one of the National party core constituencies – so it’d be interesting to see how they handle this issue. Personally I suspect that they will hide their heads and hope it goes away (which the Milton deposit will do shortly).  It is a key deficency of the NACT’s.

9 comments on “A key birdshit shortage”

  1. you know I had a post similar to this drafted once:

    More to worry about: Peak Guano
    Bird droppings, guano, make excellent fertiliser. And there just happens to be a collection of islands off Chile where millions of seabirds live and conditions are dry enough that the guano just piles up.
    Before synthetic fertilisers were developed, guano was in high demand and wars were fought for possession of islands where the guano reached 50 metres high. The rush to exploit guano saw prices skyrocket and reserves stripped. Peak guano struck, but it was not too disastrous because a cheaper alternative has been developed: synthetic urea  (yes, that’s the stuff in urine – fake piss to replace bird poo, if only it was so easy with oil).
    Now, the price of urea, like every other mineral based product, is going through the roof and guano is back in favour, especially for the growing number of organic farms. Careful management by Chile means that, this time, the guano reserves will not be over-exploited but a new threat looms no guano makers. Even as the mining (and it is mining) of bird droppings is carefully managed the seabirds themselves are being driven to extinction by overfishing. There are 4 million seabirds on the guano islands now, down from 60 million in guano’s heyday.
    The seabirds may all be gone in 20 years. Then, the guano miners and the organic farmers will really be in the shit.

    but Tane didn’t think it was funny, the dick.

  2. Rex Widerstrom 2

    Surely part of the solution, not mentioned in the main post, is to reduce the amount of fertiliser farmers apply in the first place? It’s been about 20 years since I was editing “Straight Furrow” but I can recall the Feds being concerned back then with the pollution of waterways through the excess phosphate simply washing off into our rivers when the rains came. Or has NZ tackled the issue since then?

    On a side note, I own a parrot. There is no way I can reconcile the relatively small amount of seed and fruit that goes in one end with the amount of guano I have to scrape off my floor tiles (she flies free round my apartment) and hose off the bottom of her cage. It’s like the rules of physics don’t apply within a bird’s digestive system. So – purely based on a sample of one – some sort of “guano farming” must surely be possible?

  3. If I was on the Aves Advisory Council or in the Aves Unite membership I would honestly say what an interesting and informative blog this is/was.

    As it – and I’m in neither – has anyone an idea of just what the merit of magpie bombing in the season on my place is worth..? Further, should I encourage them terrorize other birds nesting or have cat colonies catterwailing for the duration of their flights hereby..?

    To wit, am I getting chalk or growth leverage..?

    BTW, from whence the chemical structure gif..?

  4. lprent 4

    It was a graphic from somewhere. But I’m up to my neck in automake so I’ll get back to you on where

  5. @ work 5

    …If only bullshit did the same job…

  6. gladfly 6

    Steve and Rex – I found your comments very interesting! We have been discussing ‘guano farming’ for a while here (on our organic farm/orchard/garden) and have even floated the idea of a ‘fish and chip aroma machine’ to attract sea gulls 🙂
    NZ was fertilized in the past with the quadrillions of seabirds (titi etc) that nested throughout the main islands. We’ve lost those now. More fool us. ‘The organic farmers will really be in the shit” 🙂 Not so, for those of us who employ plant based fertilisers, grown on site. The gifts of the sea as well.
    As to your parrot and its over production of guano, the same effect is true of newborn humans 🙂

  7. Rex Widerstrom 7

    gladfly… I see an opportunity here. Kyle Chapman and the rest of the lards lads from the NF are looking to huddle together someplace and fend off the brown/yellow/black/lilac peril. By the looks of them they like a good feed of fish and chips on a regular basis, so just build a big fenced compound with a hotline to the local chippy, invite them in, then weld it shut behind them and let the seagulls deliver their verdict.

    Then after a few months offer to let them out one at a time if they’ll stand still and let you collect your bounty with the aid of a good rubdown with a wire brush 😀

  8. There’s heaps over in Gaza, the Israelis fired a whole lot, it’s just lying on the ground. Thinkabout it, we buy it from the Hamas and they can use the proceeds to buy more rockets food. 🙂

  9. Felix 9

    Eric, are you making a joke about chemical weapons? Used on civilians? In the last couple of weeks?

    What a card.

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