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The Building Blocks of Life: Phosphorus


Phosphorus is essential to the growth of plants, especially young plants, and without it crops simply won’t grow. It’s a relatively easy macro-nutrient to get your hand on in the states, but elsewhere in the world this mineral is scarce (or poorly divvied out). In under-developed countries, purchasing fertilizer is a risk; not only are the bags expensive, but an unlucky growing season plagued by pests could mean a total-loss of crops and in some cases a total-loss of life. None risk more than small African countries, such as Malawi, where the soil is so acidic that the phosphorus binds with iron or aluminum oxides before it’s able to reach the plants. In acidic soils such as these, farmers can’t rely on phosphorus so they must rely on something else; thermic compost.

photo by taurus.ag

Unlike the rest of the world, countries with acidic soil must get creative with their crops. For most of them their livelihood depends on it; 8 out of 10 Malawi workers are farmers. Sometimes phosphorus isn’t just too expensive to purchase, it’s unavailable. Phosphorus reserves on Earth are expected to last for centuries, but the reserves are so unevenly distributed around the planet that it’s sometimes not possible to obtain for smaller/poorer countries. While all farmers need phosphorus, there’s only so much to go around and there are only a few countries where phosphorus naturally exists. Five countries control 88% of the remaining phosphate reserves. Morocco alone has 75% of the estimated global reserves. When politics and greed combine, the smaller poorer countries can’t compete and thus fall even further behind. Thanks to thermic composting there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

To fix these countries’ phosphorus problems, they must address the real issue; the soil. A mineral fertilizer can’t restore the structure of the soil, but thermic composting can by adding organic matter back into the soil. Healthy, productive soil, is not just dirt with nutrients, but a living ecosystem. Composting keeps all of these organisms alive and keeps the soil healthy year after year. The organisms have many jobs to do, but one of their most important jobs is solubilising; or freeing phosphorus and other nutrients from their bonds. This makes those nutrients available for new plants. Composting in poorer countries could even solve deeper issues such as sanitation, by re-purposing waste. Thermic composting isn’t like your traditional kitchen scrap compost pile, but a calculated layering of waste designed to create a more efficient, faster, nutrient-rich compost.

You can read more on the subject, as well as watch videos of the Malawian people, here.

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