These advances play out today. As just one small example, Gary Zimmer, of Midwestern Bio-Ag, advises more than 3,500 farmers working approximately two million acres of farm—primarily in the Midwest, but reaching as far as Idaho and Pennsylvania—to build productivity from the soil up. He looks first at what the soil on each farm needs in biological nutrients. His techniques may create yields slightly lower than those created by the big agricultural companies, but the cost in soil amendments is also lower, so the profit can be higher. For farmers around the world, the idea of lower costs with higher profits probably sounds appealing. It’s common sense.
Our point is this: Many people believe that the next green revolution will be an offshoot of the Borlaug revolution—that it will come from optimized and modified seeds and plants, and certainly those developments will continue. But we believe the next green revolution may come from the soil. In other words, it may come from people trying to execute the optimization of the battery—the way the earthworm does. And all of this will be further amplified by greenhouse techniques such as hydroponics.
Phosphate: The Next Fossil Fuel War
Phosphate is one of the key ingredients in soil, in how the earth recharges itself. Plants require phosphate to grow. Animals, including ourselves, need phosphate for bones, teeth, and membranes—and we get that mineral from our food. Plants, clearly, get their phosphate from the soil, and in nature’s system they would return the phosphates to the soil when they die and decompose (or are redeposited as animal waste).
But humans have been implementing less-than-optimized practices. Through farming, people are removing high levels of phosphate from the soil—the plants take up the phosphate and are then carted off, leaving no remnants behind to “reseed” the organic phosphate.
Human beings also put the phosphate available in soil out of reach by overwatering. This does not dilute phosphate; it causes it to bind to other elements before the plants can uptake the phosphate in a form useful to them. In fact, the phosphate binds with so many other elements—silicates, carbonates, sulfates, and the like—that it can be a tricky nutrient to add to soil. One gardener has compared it to throwing a monkey through a jungle. The monkey’s tail and arms and legs catch on so many vines and tree limbs that it can’t get through.
The current solution to reintroduce phosphate to the soil involves dumping mined phosphate onto fields. But because phosphate links to so many other elements, it easily washes out of the soil and into groundwater, where it leads to the high nutrient content in lakes and rivers that subsequently creates algae blooms, killing off fish and aquatic plant life. Mined phosphate also tends to include radioactive elements, such as uranium, radium, radioactive lead, radon, thorium, polonium, and cadmium, because these are inescapable trace elements in phosphate ore extraction.
Plus, there is a geopolitical conundrum in the use of mined phosphate. The top two exporters of phosphate in the world are the United States and China, followed by Morocco. But in 2010, China, recognizing the importance of phosphate to its own agricultural needs, slapped a temporary 110 percent tariff on exporting phosphate at the cusp of the spring planting season. That left the United States exporting its dwindling supply. At current rates, the United States’ supply is estimated to be depleted in 30 years. That means the United States will be dependent on imports from Morocco or China—which could get expensive as tariffs fluctuate—much as nations are dependent on imported oil.
To come up with a solution for this phosphate requirement might sound like a daunting challenge, but the solution is not out of our reach. In fact, we all get to the bottom of it every day.