Water on Fire

by Dr. Mark Edwards

The classic Pete Seeger folk song Where have all the Flowers Gone? reports their “Long time passing.” We will see the long time passing of flowers, food crops and people unless we find solutions to phosphorus (P) scarcity. The ASU Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative outlines the grave situation for P and our future. Flowers are failing and food crops are starving in many food-growing areas due to unavailable or unaffordable P.

Insufficient P stunts crops as they fail to fully develop and do not set flowers and seeds. Plants with no flowers produce no food. Without flowers, plants cannot propagate and they die with no fruit, no seeds and no offspring. Flowers are the key to life as we know it.

When the vital nutrient P is no longer available or affordable to farmers, food crops will fail. How long can we live without food? Can we save the flowers so we can save human societies? To save the flowers, we must first put out the “fire” in the water.

The critical energy source on which our food supply depends, the element phosphorus, is draining from our fields into our lakes, estuaries and oceans. Also called the “light-bearer,” it burns out of control in bodies of water globally and kills living organisms, causing dead zones. A recent article in Science reported over 430 dead zones globally, expanding at about 10% a decade.

The Gulf of Mexico produces roughly 40 percent of all the seafood in the lower 48 states. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has previously estimated that the dead zone costs the U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. The record size of this year’s dead zone could be even more costly.

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone encompasses an 8,543 square mile region where the Mississippi River dumps high-nutrient runoff from its drainage basin, coming from the heart of U.S. agribusiness in the Midwest. The dead zone off the Mississippi delta was larger than the state of New Jersey in 2010. This NASA satellite imagery captures vividly the fire in the water using heat-sensing cameras.

Water on Fire

The root cause of water on fire is anthropogenic, i.e. derived from human activities. The press often blames algae, but they miss the fact that nature’s lowest plant on the food chain creates 70% of the world’s oxygen every day. Algae produce massive amounts of oxygen and bloom magnificently when well supplied with nitrogen (N) and P. The major source of N and P in the water comes from agricultural runoff. As these macro fertilizers for plant food and energy erode from fields, they pollute and poison our waterways, wetlands and groundwater. The nutrient rich water migrates to lakes, estuaries and oceans where algae bloom spontaneously.

Algal blooms create high-energy green biomass that produces lots of oxygen but are also food for nearly all higher forms of life. Algae serve at the bottom of the food chain and predators of all forms feast on algae.

Fire in the water occurs from the chemical heat energy produced by the bacteria that devour the algae biomass. The fire consumes the dissolved oxygen in the water. After the bacteria burn through all the dissolved oxygen put there by algae, all other living things there die from asphyxiation.

Dead zones kill from asphyxiation

Humans, animals and plants depend on P for cellular metabolism, which creates our energy and vitality. The crisis of P draining from our fields to waste streams is elementary; the Earth’s crust has very limited sources of recoverable P. We are mining and consuming over seven million tons a year. P cannot be manufactured and plants accept no substitutes. The P mines are scarce and only five countries control 90% of the phosphate mines. Countries with large, hungry populations including India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the countries of Europe and Scandinavia have no P mines.

Most countries are forced to import their P fertilizer. The US has several phosphate mines but those reserves are degrading and are expected to last less than 20 years. The US currently imports about 10% of the needed P and that number is expected to increase substantially. Experts believe P mines globally will run out in 30-40 years. Long before P mines go dry, P fertilizer will be unavailable or unaffordable to farmers.

Already, impoverished farmers in many areas of the world cannot afford P for their fields. Farmers know their yields will diminish and then crash without P fertilizer. They cannot afford P because the price increased 700% over a recent 14-month period. Many countries have subsidized P fertilizers for years but cannot continue farmer subsidies at the higher prices.

People in 40 countries rioted over food scarcity and prices in 2008. Food cost increases were due to a number of factors including higher demand for meats, more biofuel production using food crops as well as increased fertilizer prices. The severe food riots may be only a precursor to more severe civil unrest as food and the price of food inputs, such as fuel, fresh water and fertilizer, rise.

The 2011 Arab Spring ignited from lack of food. People were willing to put up with terrible tyrants for decades but when the tyrants failed to provide sufficient affordable food, the uprisings began and governments toppled from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Civil uprising exploded in dozens of countries. The Arab spring changed governments but did not address the urgent need to produce sufficient affordable food. Many people are still hungry with no path to food security.

Algae solution – Smartcultures

Algae have the capacity to recover and recycle P from farm waste streams. Sustainable MicroAlgae Regenerative Technology, or Smartcultures, enables farmers to create catchments that retained the fertilizer rich water. This wastewater cycles through the smartcultures unit that allow algae to do what they do naturally — pull organics, including fertilizers, out of the water. The clean water can then be released to waterways while the algae can be applied as compost to the fields.

Smartcultures do not require a special algae species. The simple approach selects indigenous algae from the field and cultures the multiple species to find a robust variety that grows quickly. Indigenous algae have evolved through eons to adapt to the specific microclimate and local soil conditions. The algae production unit does not need to be optimal because the process simply recovers waste stream nutrients and recycles them to the field.

Algae nutrient recycle unit. Source: AzCATI Arizona State University Polytechnic

Two years of field tests with a multinational food company demonstrated smartcultures can improve yields by 30+% while substantially reducing waste and pollution. (In these tests, we were not set up to use the farm waste stream for nutrients, but the model works the same.) Growers were able to reduce commercial inorganic fertilizer applications by 30 to 50%. The crop matured earlier, which achieved significantly higher market prices for the produce. Taste tests at Arizona State University for cantaloupes and honeydew melons demonstrated a 15 to 1 preference for the melons with much of their fertilizer delivered by algae.

One of the unexpected outcomes of these field tests was that algae continue to grow in the field, as long as moisture is available. Algae regenerated degraded soil by adding significant amounts of organic material to the soil. The additional humus reduced irrigation requirements because the organic material held the water and enabled more nutrient absorption.

The algae infused fields improved soil porosity (soil looseness) 500%. The increased soil porosity enabled plant roots to reach far deeper for moisture and nutrients. Roots serve as the foundation for crops, which translates to larger plants with more vitality. Compared to controls, the algae-infused produce required substantially fewer pesticides, herbicides and fungicides because the plants were more stress tolerant. The algae may have promoted growth hormones that enabled the plants to produce their own biopesticides.

Smartcultures engage farmers in doing what they do best – grow specialty crops. When farmers are able to apply smartcultures to their fields, they will be able to significantly reduce waste and water pollution as well as reduce crop input costs. Algae biofertilizers can increase yields by 30% or more while improving produce quality on nearly all sensory dimensions.

Farmers can engage algae to put out the fire in the water by using natural processes to remove the key nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, which are the root cause of dead zones. While farmers act collectively to remove the nutrients that become flammable, they can improve their crop yield quantity and quality while reducing their input costs. Smartcultures can provide an extraordinary value proposition for farmers, fishermen and society.