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Worse Than Peak Oil? We're Quickly Running Out of a Chemical Essential to Growing Food

"P" is for phosphorus, the stuff of life, and "p" is for "peak phosphorus" by 2030, ecologists say, unless - presto! - pee can be turned into gold through modern-day alchemy.

Unremarked and unregulated by the United Nations and other high-level assemblies, the world's supply of phosphate rock, the dominant source of phosphorus for fertilizer, is being rapidly - and wastefully - drawn down. By most estimates, the best deposits will be gone in 50 to 100 years.

Worse, phosphorus production could peak in just two decades, according to new research from Australia and Sweden. That's when demand could outstrip supply, playing out a familiar scenario of scarcity, price shocks, riots, starvation and war.

In short, peak phosphorus could be the unwelcome sequel to peak oil.

"It's an emerging crisis," said Stuart White, director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, and a co-author of two phosphorus studies published recently by Global Environmental Change and the International Conference on Nutrient Recovery from Wastewater Streams.

"Right now, you can get phosphorus if you're willing to pay for it," White said. "But global reserves will peak in 20 to 25 years. Africa has not stirred in terms of its phosphorus use. Africa could take off, and that's very scary.