back to article Fertiliser doom warning! Pesky humans set to wipe selves out AGAIN

The human race's profligate use of fertilisers may be about to breach "planetary boundaries" and render our planet unable to support civilisation, an American limnologist has claimed. “We’re running up to and beyond the biophysical boundaries that enable human civilisation as we know it to exist,” says Stephen Carpenter, …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I see the wheels are coming off the climate change farce and they're looking for alternatives to replace it. Ocean acidification isn't panning out quite how they hoped, lets blame the agricultural revolution instead!

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Lasarus Long quote on stupidity comes to mind.

      1. Nitrogen and to be more exact Nitrate/Nitrite is not farce. It is actually something actively looked at presently with the regulations being tightened by the day in Eu. Unfortunately, rest of the world is not following suit.

      2. Same for phosphorus.

      3. If you think that these are a "replacement farce" I suggest you go and sit on a Brittany or Normandy beach in late summer. NEXT TO THE WATER. RIGHT THERE, NEXT TO THE ROTTING ALGAE. Right where the boar is in the pic. We can manifest benevolence and call the emergency services for you. Or maybe not - you do not believe that this is a problem, right?

      1. Fluffy Bunny

        Re: Lasarus Long quote on stupidity comes to mind.

        "I suggest you go and sit on a Brittany or Normandy beach in late summer."

        Hang on a second there. The beaches have always smelled like that since well before the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. And no, I don't me the Watermellon, er Green party. This is simply another excuse to force well-off people into poverty so they will be as poor as the 3rd world people, while no going anywhere near solving these made-up problems.

      2. Wzrd1

        Re: Lasarus Long quote on stupidity comes to mind.

        Yeah, algal blooms suck. Royally.

        Some people are sickened by atomized algae toxins 90 miles from US estuaries.

        The real problem is teaching farmers to stop wasting their fertilizer, but retaining it in the soil by using less and preventing runoff. More simply, teaching them to stop pissing money away.

    2. Optimistic Cynic
      IT Angle

      To Anonymous Coward

      Far from the wheels coming off the climate change issue more and more research is supporting the realty that it is indeed man made, as does this initial research.

      From your tone I get the idea that you are not educated in any way on the field of science, your knowledge is no doubt at best very shallow with out much breadth. You would not have posted what you did if you were better educated.

      This published work will be reviewed and either found unsupportive or supportive by others in the scientific community. The very same people who have confirmed that indeed we are spoiling this planet ability to support human and other animal life. We are not ruining our planet, we are forcing it to change in such a way we may not survive. The earth will still be here for many years after we leave it no matter what we do. But what we do does determine if we can survive on this planet.

    3. StephenA

      CO2 alarmism

      I see you've attracted a lot of down votes for your trouble - but take a look here:

      Peer reviewed science about the impact (or not...) of CO2 and the pitfalls of climate modelling.

      1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: CO2 alarmism


        While CO2 is subject to modelling, predictions, statistics, etc P and N pollution is something you can touch, see and most importantly smell. It is also trivial to measure.

        There are regions like Brittany where iIt is so f*** bad that for example you can _SMELL_ it across the English channel - 40 miles away. There are already deaths from it too. Two years ago there was at least one dead from hydrogen sulphide poisoning when trying to clear it. This is in addition to deaths of wild animals and pets which is just "part of the course".

        It is also on its way to get to the same level in many in other places - Black Sea, some places around the northern rim of the Mediteranean, Mexico Bay, Yellow Sea - you name it. Each of them is measurable (no needs to juggle a model with CO2) and quantifiable with hard experimental data.

        1. Sirius Lee

          Re: CO2 alarmism

          This really is desperation. The challenge climate and other 'gaia' scientists face is that they are not scientists. Science is not about looking for evidence to support your favourite hypothesis. It's about finding reasons why your hypothesis may be wrong. If there is an alternative explanation your hypothesis may be wrong.

          So much of 'climate' science is about supporting the cause and precious little is about finding credible alternative explanations. It is notoriously difficult so obtain funding for research into why any climate change may have more benign explanations.

          And this article is about atrocious 'science'. Civilization developed in the Holocene therefore humanity needs holocene conditions. What!? What evidence is that based on. Sure, the only human civilization we know developed in these conditions but correlation is not causation. For all we know, the decline in man-eating sabre-toothed tigers may have been equally to blame - which may or may not have required holocene-like conditions.

          The challenge for climate scientists is to be taken seriously and to do that the science needs to be real. Not making measurements intended to confirm a bias but rigorously looking for alternative explanations and actively supporting those that do without labelling them 'deniers'. And this is a problem for climate science because you can never prove a theory, only ever disprove it. This is why, 100 years after Einstein proposed special relativity, with its immense experimental support, it is still prodded an poked by physicists.

          In my view, climate science only wants to prove there is man-made problem and this is not science.

    4. Qu Dawei


      Just because there could be some kind of conspiracy or fabrication, doesn't mean there is or was one.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't see why he's accusing Farmers of over-using fertiliser. Presumably fertiliser isn't free, so why anybody would waste obscene quantities of it is beyond me.

    1. dogged

      You may not WANT to overuse it but it happens pretty much everywhere for exactly the reason you stated - it isn't free.

      This means that people like DEFRA (formerly MAFF) are under tremendous pressure to continually increase the "recommended" levels of fertilizer (and pesticide, herbicide, fungicide) used per acre so that the "rural economy" - ie, the fertilizer salesmen - do well. In the western world, fertilizers are also a capital 100% tax deductible business expense so they're not exactly free but come at a penalty of short-term cashflow only.

      When the subsidies are pegged to be available to the very biggest farmers (as in the UK, small farmers are expected to do the capitalist thing and die because they're not subsidized efficiently by the state.... don't worry, that confuses me too but is true regardless) and those subsidies are in part discretionary based on the "efficiency" of your agriculture which is partly measured by how well you fall in line with DEFRA's recommendations... well, when that happens Monsanto sell a lot of fertilizer.

      You should also note that "efficiency" has - in DEFRA terms - a one-to-one mapping with "monoculture" which by definition relies on fertilizers as otherwise the soil is leeched of N and P and cannot sustain crops (the old method was to leave land fallow for two years, preferably growing clover as a Nitrogen fixer but this is not "efficient"). It also becomes vulnerable to pests, fungi and weeds that are unable to gain a foothold in a crop-rotation system.

      So yeah, it's farmers. But they are not alone in this farce.

      1. breakfast Silver badge

        Anything touched by the hand of DEFRA is guaranteed to go badly.

        The day after I was elected, one of my first moves would be to lock the doors of the ministry and send in the angry badgers to wreak long-sought revenge.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. ITfarmer

        From a farmer

        I have never had the misfortune to read a bunch of utter tripe in all my life.

        As well as being a farmer's son I work in IT as a contractor.

        A few key points about how idiotic most of the posts on here are.

        1) Food production is ALL about chemicals.

        2) All plants require 3 key chemicals usually in large quantities - Nitrogen, Phosphate & Potash.

        3) Plants require other key chemicals for example Sulphur - which because we no longer burn Sulphur baring coal we have to apply to fields.

        4) When a crop is grown ALL those chemicals in the food leaving the farm gate have to be replaced otherwise each successive crop yields not only less but of lower quality - ie not fit for human consumption.

        5) Wheat fit to make bread requires HIGHER levels of nitrogen.

        6) There IS NO MAGIC FALLOWING of fields to MAGICALLY create Phosphate or Potash. Fallowing MIGHT create some Nitrogen but it also MIGHT not.

        7) Trees were burnt to create Potash in times past.

        8) Phosphate comes from poo - this is why farms apply poo to fields.

        9) Minerals in fields CAN provide Phosphate IF the mineral is within the soil/rock and sufficient years have passed for the weather to break down the mineral.

        10) Fungicides are applied to crops - one of the main reasons is to ensure fungi residues don't send people and animals mad.

        11) Herbicides are applied to kill weeds because otherwise this promotes fungi and produces a lower quality crop not fit for humans to eat.

        12) Insecticides are applied to kill insects because they carry fungi diseases and produces a lower quality crop not fit for humans to eat.

        By far the most STUPID point none of you realise is the MAIN polluter of rivers and seas is all of you personally.

        Most of the Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potash gets eaten and excreted by all of you, flushed down the pan and into the sewer - in fact there is so much still in poo if it was treated it could be eaten again, probably several times - and yes it does actually happen in farming for example in Asia duck houses are put over ponds to allow the fish to directly consume the chemicals.

        So you all are the main polluters - but worse still those of you who are vegans need crops grown with higher fertiliser content otherwise the crops would not be fit for humans - this unfit for human food goes to animals who are able to convert poor food into meat/milk/eggs fit for humans to eat.

        Worse still is the fact that nitrogen fixing crops such as beans and peas are not grown because all of you refuse to eat them in large quantities - so it is you all again which are causing pollution and all of you do it by choice but blame everyone but yourselves.

        Personally on our farm we buy in processed human poo in the form of "biosolids" - so we recycle your pollution.

        Not only that we also buy brown bin green waste in the form of "compost" which is again farmers recycling your pollution.

        Note the words BUY - I BUY your pollution and deal with it - all you do is cause it.

        Now all of you are so good at recycling that my compost comes full of metal, plastic, dog toys and any old crap - still ultimately you are eating your own rubbish so tough luck.

        Now lets turn to the crap about farmers, chemical companies & DEFRA creating ever increasing pollution - well obviously that is not the case because we recycle your sh@t literally. Further we are limited in what fertiliser we can apply based on the crop we are growing. So that is twice you've been knocked down.

        But of course fertiliser that MIGHT find it's was into streams is not caught because the "Environmentalists" can't literally be bothered - it's easy to do by creating reed ponds and processing the reeds every so many years - not one single penny is spent on capturing anything. Mind you there isn't much to catch because in summer MOST drainage ditches are dry which means MOST farms cant cause ANY pollution.

        Runoff from farm can only occur during winter in most farms.

        As regards the looney position you have on subsidies I would dearly love to have no subsidy - then I wouldn't have to put up with idiots like you moaning like a pathetic little child with wet knickers. But because you the public refuse to pay a decent price for food - for example milk is being sold at below the cost of production - then farmers need extra money or they will go out of business - which means you go hungry which so far hasn't happened since world war 2.

        Shame the same can't be said of any other industry.

        The subsidies are not enough and dairy farmers are still going out of business - over half have in the last decade or two.

        We have to subsidise the farm by having local businesses on the farm using our facilities or we would go bust.

        That means a family, their home, way of life, business and job has gone - this has happened in the 10,000s

        It's obvious that most of you care about how or where your food is grown - the UK has some of the highest quality food in the world - go drive to Germany through France and you will rarely see ANY hedgerows or wildlife.

        Still don't let me interrupt your destruction of something you are completely and utterly clueless about.

        Personally I hate having to provide food to idiots like you at the insignificant wages I get - I can make far more in IT but I do it for my father and because I like farming and the countryside - not to provide food to retarded ignorant idiotic backward idiots like you.

        1. dogged

          Re: From a farmer

          Well said.

          I used to do the same but my dad died and the landlords took the farm so these days I just code.

        2. Pete4000uk

          Re: From a farmer

          Have an up vote! (From someone who has fond memories of cattle herding on his uncles farm before he said 'fffk this' and sold up)

      3. Tim99 Silver badge

        Maintenance dose

        If a farmer goes to the trouble of having soil samples analysed (normally by his fertilizer supplier) and there is enough N and P, the farmer will be told to apply a maintenance dose. That is a relatively low level of fertilizer, most of which gets washed away into the local water courses without affecting the crop. The fertilizer company REALLY does not want the farmer to not use their product - They might stop buying it when they don't need it...

    2. wiggers

      The farmer doesn't pay for it, you do! Massive farm subsidies. E.g.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        "The farmer doesn't pay for it, you do! "

        Yup and they'll adapt to suck up every available bit of subsidy.

        On the other hand, axing farm subsidies is beneficial.

        New Zealand did exactly that in 1984 and as a result has far better-run farms, producing high quality products at a low price (quite simply because if you don't produce what people want to buy, you go out of business instead of being propped up by the state)

        The result can be seen here in the UK. NZ meat products have changed from being something you bought because it was cheap and you couldn't afford anything better to being a premium product (and thanks to the french blocking EU imports, most of the really good stuff sells into japan or the middle east)

        1. dogged

          @Alan Brown

          My dad was a small farmer, which is a misnomer as he may only have had 120 acres but he was also six foot eight so the description feels a bit weird. Still "bloody enormous wall of West Country Stubborn with a small farm" doesn't roll off the tongue...

          anyway, he fully supported the abolition of all farming subsidies and the CAP. He said the game was rigged toward East Anglian land barons who could afford to buy as many MPS as they liked and the agrichemical companies who could afford to buy as many MAFF officials as they liked.

          This is, I have discovered over the years, a very common attitude among farmers with less than 300 or so acres in the UK. In order to reduce the voting impact of this attitude, it has been the policy of most governments since Heath signed the country away to eradicate those farmers. In the name of "efficiency".

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Wiggers, since when has the guardian been a scientific authority? I will admit that it is one of the main mouthpieces of the Green Blob and activists safe harbour.

    3. Snowman

      "I don't see why he's accusing Farmers of over-using fertiliser. Presumably fertiliser isn't free, so why anybody would waste obscene quantities of it is beyond me."

      They overuse because there is relatively little downside to them for putting more on, cost of the extra fertilizer is extremely cheap verses if they put too little on and the entire crop fails.

    4. CarbonLifeForm

      Why they do indeed waste fertilizer despite it not being free

      At least in the US, large scale plantings are fertilized via crop dusting planes. It is an inefficient method of spreading the chemicals; hence, you have to spray way more than what you actually need to ensure the cultivar gets the correct dosage. It's done because getting 10K hectares fertilized otherwise requires an army of people, and you like to reserve said army for the harvest effort.

      Same thing happens with irrigation in the absence of a drop irrigation system. So yes you do end up wasting a lot of fertilizer to get your fields fertilized - traditional methods are inefficient and you waste a lot of fertilizer, which runs off and causes terrible side effects like Overexcited Boffin Syndrome...

      ULV (Ultra Low Volume) practices are far more parsimonious. So are cold foggers although they are usually more labor intensive. These are often used in third world countries as they require less water.

      Then there's problems with record keeping (did I do this bloody field or not? ) lack of sensors (how much fertilizer actually did stick anyway? ) etc.

      The man isn't crazy. We are likely overusing these phosphates and need to clean up our act. There are ways to do this.

  3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    More interesting than "The Big AI fear", but....

    Everything important to civilisation," he contends, took place prior to 1914: he specifically mentions "the development of agriculture, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution".

    A dubious claim. Antibiotics, Computers, Advanced Mathematics, Internal Combustion Engine are forgotten? I guess that would be "some kind of civilization" then. I also don't see how the Roman Empire comes into this. Europoor-centric, moi?

    In the prof's view it's extremely urgent for the human race to cut down on fertiliser over-use, as this could knacker the eco-system to such an extent that it could no longer support civilisation and surviving humans would have to return to life as hunter-gatherers.

    This point urgently needs further explanations. It seems to compress a few books into a pithy phrase.

    I have heard that Phosphorus is hard and harder to find in appreciable quantities though. Let's have some market pricing....

    1. Richard Jones 1

      Re: More interesting than "The Big AI fear", but....

      Guano or bird shit to the less polite. A famous source of phosphorous.

      Also a term for what some appear to use to start panicking.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: More interesting than "The Big AI fear", but....

        "Guano or bird shit to the less polite. A famous source of phosphorous."

        Often heavily mined from tropical islands. Naaru being a prime example where around a million years of birdshit was mined out in 70 years, leaving bare exposed coral and limestone pinnacles behind.

    2. Crisp

      Who's Big Al?

      And why should I fear him?

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Who's Big Al?

        He's like Marcellus Wallace, but contrrolling your fridge via the IoT

      2. Captain Hogwash

        Re: Who's Big Al?

        He has a notoriously low tulip threshold.

    3. Steve the Cynic

      Re: More interesting than "The Big AI fear", but....

      "Internal Combustion Engine"

      Um, the internal combustion engine in some form was invented long before 1914. Even if we concentrate on the thing we recognise as an internal combustion engine (i.e. an Otto cycle reciprocating engine), we still find working engines produced in the last quarter of the 19th century. Even gas turbines predate this "critical" date of 1914 - the very first working models were produced in the 1903-1906 time frame, although they were unusably inefficient.

      Usual caveats about Wikipedian accuracy apply.

  4. Cuddles

    Nonsensical scaremongering

    "According to the prof, until a point around a hundred years ago, the planetary ecosystem had been stable for thousands of years"

    You can ignore anything he says after this, because it's total bollocks. The environment hasn't been close to stable since the last glacial period (around 13,000 years ago), and the Holocene extinction, the sixth mass extinction event, is generally considered to have begun some time between then and about 9,000 years ago. The alternative view is that the Holocene extinctions are actually just a continuation of the Quaternary extinctions which have been going on for the last 2 million years or so. The Quaternary being the most recent ice age period (the previous one finishing around 260 million years ago), with ice ages being characterised specifically by their highly unstable environment and ecosystems - the consist of constant oscillations between glacial and inter-glacial periods, with the Holocene being the most recent interglacial.

    So yeah, whatever problems their may be from overuse of fertiliser, anyone who claims everything has been nice and stable up until 100 years ago is spouting utter bullshit and can be safely ignored. As can anyone who claims nothing important has happened in the last century.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nonsensical scaremongering

      Why are you so sure your definition of "planetary ecosystem" and "stable" are the same as those of the Prof? On the face of it, both are quite nebulous terms, so it might pay to be a little careful about ensuring you are not at cross purposes. Especially if the Prof's use of "stable" was in the rather narrow sense - which would be entirely in keeping with this academic study - of referring primarily to the levels of phosphorous & nitrogen and their circulation in the ecosystem.

    2. edge_e

      Re: Nonsensical scaremongering

      anyone who claims everything has been nice and stable up until 100 years ago is spouting utter bullshit and can be safely ignored.

      I have no idea who's right about historical enviromental stability, but take the following:-

      Pigs can fly, the earth is flat and 2+2=4. Now clearly the first two parts of that statement are bollocks but I'm sure most would agree the third is correct.

      Therefore you can't assume that somebody can be safely ignored just because you know that some of what they say is rubbish.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Nonsensical scaremongering

        @edg_e, in fact if you are a CliSci then 2+2=5 ±1

      2. Tom 13

        Re: Pigs can fly, the earth is flat and 2+2=4.

        Except what the distinguished prof is saying is: "Because the Earth is flat and pigs can fly, 2+2=4."

        Best to ignore that sort. They might spit out a truth here or there by accident, but it's too much work to sort out the diamonds from the unprocessed sewage.

  5. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Sounds like a no-brainer to me?

    If farmers are using too much - just point it out to them and I'm sure they will stop immediately.

    No sane farmer would willingly sink money into the ground for nothing (unless paid to do so by the EU, of course :-P )

    1. Lars Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: Sounds like a no-brainer to me?

      Please Vladimir Plouzhnikov, the EU part was both cheep and dumb.

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov
    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Sounds like a no-brainer to me?

      If farmers are using too much - just point it out to them and I'm sure they will stop immediately.

      Yes, because never in history have farmers continued to make bad decisions (*cough* Dust Bowl *cough*).

      Really, the amount of "noble farmer" idealization going on in this forum is remarkable. And yes, I too have farming family and friends and the odd bit of farming experience myself. Unlike some of you Sons of the Soil, though, I'm also aware of history and capable of critical thinking.

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        Re: Sounds like a no-brainer to me?

        Michael, the answer is in the sentence you quoted - just point it out to them.

        They are not "noble farmers", they are businessmen and have to balance the books. If you'll tell them that they can cut costs by using less fertiliser while maintaining the same output they will do it. Not for Gaia or for the future of the civilisation but for their bottom line.

  6. Perpetual Cyclist

    There are no shortage of sources of nitrogen based fertilizers - all you need is enough energy and you can make it out of the nitrogen that is the air we breath, However, there are limited reserves of phosphorus deposits that are concentrated enough to be economically extracted. Once again - the exact amount depends on how much energy you are prepared to expend extracting and refining it. Which of course is the biggie. It has been calculated that 10 calories of fossil energy are burnt for every calorie of food on your (industrial, first world) dinner plate. Modern industrial agriculture is so dependent on fossil fuels, that without them, global food production would collapse, followed a few weeks later by the vast majority of the 7 billion people dependent on it.

    Which is very worrying, and gives a lie to the use of biofuels from food crops, since these simply convert one fossil fuel into another, sometimes at a net energy loss.

    1. Dan Paul

      There is plenty of both.... we just have to get over the..

      taboo's of using "Nightsoil". Obviously, with this many people on Earth, there is no end of fecal matter available. The proper handling of which renders it quite safe if it does not get contaminated by industrial waste.

      Instead of sending it through the sewer system into the lakes and rivers, it needs to get sprayed on the fields along with the animal manure. Rain runoff can be minimized by proper tilling of the land with an eye to the direction of the furrows.

      Voila, ALL the NATURAL ORGANIC fertilizer one could ever want and Dupont and Monsanto (or other chemical companies) aren't involved. No anhydrous ammonia, no phosphate mining.

      The real issue is that these alarmists would really rather see humanity in the dark and cold, wearing hairshirts and shoeless. If overpopulation and climate is as much a threat as they say then we really need to have a plan to leave earth. The poor aren't going to stop breeding more mouths to feed, the rich aren't even replacing themselves these days and the middle class pays for it all so they can't afford more kids.

      1. Thecowking

        Re: There is plenty of both.... we just have to get over the..

        Human poo is already used as fertiliser in the UK, most of it ends up on fields after treatment if I recall correctly from my days at United Utilities.

        So there's no taboo, it's already been done. No one missed that we produce fertiliser, no there's not enough for all the fields, which is why we use artificial ones too.

        1. Dan Paul

          Re: There is plenty of both.... we just have to get over the..

          So the UK is all you worry about? It's (nightsoil) not very commonly used in the US or Canada where much more land has agricultural designation and chemical fertilizer usage is far more prevalent than the UK will ever be.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: There is plenty of both.... we just have to get over the..

            Canada, NS, Halifax, FecesTech Park:


            All your poo-poo are belong to us.

            There's still some reluctance to sprinkling it directly on food crops. But it's being used to grow sod at the very least. And who knows where else...

        2. Tom 13

          Re: So there's no taboo

          Yes, yes. I understand you're the UK and there are no taboos over there except maybe publishing an actual Charlie Hebdo cover. But that's not true everywhere.

          I can assure you the distinguished Prof is talking out his ass. One of my early jobs was working for a NPO in the US which was intimately involved in the regulation of fertilizers and pesticides. The farmers want to know the least amount of fertilizer they can put down to maximize their crops. Same thing for pesticides. If they could get the same crop yields without using either they would. Because at the end of the day they're just like any other business: they want to maximize their profitability. It isn't simply a matter of passing along the cost. Money not spent on fertilizer can either be money in your pocket, or money on expanding your farm to make more total profit.

      2. Franklin

        Re: There is plenty of both.... we just have to get over the..

        "Instead of sending it through the sewer system into the lakes and rivers, it needs to get sprayed on the fields along with the animal manure. Rain runoff can be minimized by proper tilling of the land with an eye to the direction of the furrows.

        Voila, ALL the NATURAL ORGANIC fertilizer one could ever want and Dupont and Monsanto (or other chemical companies) aren't involved. No anhydrous ammonia, no phosphate mining."

        Mammals do not fix nitrogen. We just don't. Not pigs, not cows, not humans.

        All the nitrogen in our poo comes from nitrogen in our diet. We do not fix nitrogen. We just pass it along through our digestive tracts. Animal manure, human or otherwise, is not a SOURCE of nitrogen, it's a CARRIER of nitrogen.

        We, like cows and pigs and any other mammals, have nitrogen in our waste from the nitrogen we ingest in our food that has been fixed somewhere else. That "somewhere else" is either chemical fertilizer or from rhizomes, filamentous bacteria, or to a lesser extent some other bacteria.

        I've read at least one report that states the total amount of crop-available biological nitrogen fixation on earth does not meet the total amount of nitrogen we need to grow food for the entire population. That leaves chemical fertilizers.

        If we apply chemical fertilizers to plants that are grown for animal consumption, then feed those plants to the animals and use the animal's poo to grow other crops, we've done what one bloke I know calls "nitrogen laundering"--but I trust you can understand why getting your nitrogen to grow animal feed from animal poo doesn't actually work, given that animals do not actually fix nitrogen.

        1. Jan 0 Silver badge

          Re: There is plenty of both.... we just have to get over the..

          Re: "nitrogen laundering".

          At least it helps to maintain nitrogen levels in the soil, so there doesn't need to be as much nitrogen fixing going on.

          Animals don't fix nitrogen, neither do they return more than a small fraction to the atmosphere. (Plenty to chew on here: )

      3. Jan 0 Silver badge

        Re: There is plenty of both.... we just have to get over the..

        You're right that we don't effectively recycle nightsoil. In typical sewage treatment we allow a succession of aerobic microbes to convert all the nitrogenous compounds into elemental nitrogen that is lost into the atmosphere. Pure water comes out of our predominantly aerobic sewage treatment plants, separated from 'sewage sludge' that contains a variety of simple minerals, minus the nitrogen. Sewage sludge may get sprayed on fields to replace other plant nutrients including phosphorus, but it doesn't contribute nitrogen. Unfortunately it tends to contain toxic chemicals, particularly 'heavy metals', because we put more than shit and piss in our sewers. Unsurprisingly farmers, and their advisors, are reluctant to use sewage sludge.

        In an ideal world we'd collect shit and piss separately and treat it in a way that killed all the pathogens*, then spray it on our fields with the nitrogenous compounds intact. However, soil microbes would still release some of the nitrogen before our crops could use it. So we'd still need to use the Haber process (invented pre-1914). Of course, we could ditch agriculture and go back to a sustainable population of hunter gatherers. That's probably about 10 million people:) If we want to keep feeding the current, growing population, in a habitable world, we need to discover how to manufacture synthetic food, without using biological organisms. That's because we're not maufacturing any more land for agriculture. Maybe we could get the energy input well below 10:1 for food calories.

        *AFAIK I've only caught Ascaris lumbricoides from nightsoil. YMMV^H^H^Hour infection might be worse.

  7. smartypants

    Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

    Someone comes along and says "we're doomed because of X"... or Y... or Z...

    Each of these may or may not be true (usually not), but very rarely is X, or Y or Z anything other than a symptom of a base cause, that being THE SHEER NUMBER OF PEOPLE LIVING ON THE PLANET.

    So even if we all followed this limnologist's advice, and solved his problem X, we'd still be stuffed from the other symptoms of the base cause which threaten all sorts of other problems (or have already caused them).

    Rather than getting obsessed with fixing one or two of the symptoms of the plague of people on the planet, oughtn't we start considering rolling out really quite simple, inoffensive and effective ways of encouraging people on average to have 0.2 or 0.3 fewer children. (No, I don't mean kids without a left leg!) and manage the human population into a long term decline in size so that all these bloody things get sorted out properly?

    I really don't see the need to have another 10 billion people. Plenty die out each day. There's plenty of opportunity for future sprog-making. We just need to offer incentives! (Beyond those of freedom from baby spew and a life not tainted by the presence of ungrateful sullen teenagers in one's life!)

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

      That is nonsense. The planet + appropriate technology can easily sustain 10 times, probably 100 times more people than we have now.

      If you put ALL the world's population into a city with the population density of Paris it will cover just about half the area of France, leaving the rest of the planet for food, mining, power generation, waste processing etc.

      Global "overpopulation" is an imaginary problem.

      The "overpopulation" only affects the "developing" nations because they have not reached the necessary cultural and technological levels to sustain their numbers and to bring the living standards to Western levels. Once they do - the real problem will be the SHORTAGE of people.

      1. ravenviz Silver badge

        Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

        What if I don't want to live in France?

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

          Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

          That's just tough, citizen. Don't be reactionary.

      2. Dan Paul

        Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

        You say nothing about the MENTAL health of people living in that close proximity to each other.

        Personal space requirements are wildy underestimated and putting people into Mega Cities will be the death of humanity and culture. Many novels, short stories and movies have investigated this scenario and none of them were anything but a failure.

        Behavioral scientist BF Skinner crammed rats into just such an overcrowded "warren" and they ate each other. I say that is happening right now but with less direct forms of cannabalism.

        We need to realize that we can't support everyone, they have to do it themselves. Without various forms of "pressure" working against humanity there can be no growth or innovation. People can't just sit passively like sheep or cattle and be "taken care of" by the Nanny State. It is just not viable.

        I am less worried by the "developing nations" capabilities than those of the Nanny State society. If western nations collapse, many developing nations will still have the knowledge and gumption to stay alive through subsistence farming. Not so of the west, which is why there are now so many "preppers" preparing for the inevitable collapse of society.

      3. smartypants

        Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

        Yeah. Shortage of people is a real problem in London. If only we had more! Good grief.

        You have to be profoundly unaware of the rest of the biosphere and the impact today of the developed human population on land, sea and air and the displacement of the natural world to consider a 100-fold increase in population as anything other than a bloody catastrophe.

        And at that point, you'll be arguing we don't have enough people! Brilliant.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

      @sillypants "...another 10 billion people..."

      The 1970s called. They want their issue back.

      The peak in about 2050 might reach 'only' about 9 billion total. Humans may never hit even 10 billion, let alone "another" 10 billion. Population trends are down, too far down in most modernized developed countries.

      You need some remedial BBC 'More or Less', and a strong dose of Hans Rosling Gap Minder via TED.

      1. Fluffy Bunny

        Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

        "Population trends are down, too far down in most modernized developed countries."

        Population trends are only down in the advanced countries. Third-world hell-holes like Iran marry their girls off at 13 and prohibit any form of birth control. Think Catholics 200 years ago. India and Afric aren't much better, they just start later.

        The result is hellish overpopulation of poverty-stricken people over most of the world, combined with underpopulation in rich parts. The inevitable migration of economic migrants from these places into Europe, Australia, etc. Oh, but they call themselves refugees so you can't not take them.

        The authors and most of these commentators have missed the main point. There are too many poor people. The only suggestions I can think of are:

        a. get the poor people onto birth control so they only have 3-4 children.

        b. every year there should be a poor cull, where rich people pay to bash in the heads of several poor children (with a tip of the hat to Tim Brook-Taylor).

        I leave the decision on which approach to take to the enlightenned people that write rubbish science for a living.

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

          Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

          "There are too many poor people. The only suggestions I can think of are:

          a. get the poor people onto birth control so they only have 3-4 children.

          b. every year there should be a poor cull, where rich people pay to bash in the heads of several poor children (with a tip of the hat to Tim Brook-Taylor)."

          Just wait for these countries full of poor people become richer and the problem will sort itself out without your inventive genocidal solutions.

          But then, of course, these previously-but-no-longer-poor people may stop trying to immigrate here, so who is going to work then?? Oh, bummer!

        2. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

          Re: Re: Even if true, addressing individual symptoms is not going to work.

          "Fluffy Bunny" - your views are indistinguishable from fascism. As a rich white guy, the only you offer the poor are coercion or death.

          Population falls to > below replacement levels < as soon as living standards improve - so why not just say you want the poor to stay poor?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    is cannibalism the answer?

    Presumably these future hunter/gatherers will be cannibals as I don't see any herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically towards Reading!

    1. ravenviz Silver badge

      Re: is cannibalism the answer?

      You obviously have not been there on a Saturday night!

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: is cannibalism the answer?

      Look somewhere else. I don't want to be a nugget.

  9. fritsd

    Do bears fish in the woods?

    One of the weirdest things I've *ever* read about ecology, is that apparently brown bears are a keystone species with respect to the Phosphorus balance.

    Phosphates will easily dissolve and flow via the lakes and rivers to the sea, where it enriches the aquatic ecosystem (algal blooms etc., that's why we don't use phosphate in washing powder anymore).

    So.. how do you get them back onto land?? It's not going to evaporate and go along with the rain.

    Fish build up their bones from the calcium and phosphate in the seawater. But fish are notorious for staying away from land (with a few exceptions such as eels and lungfish, yes).

    But salmon swim back to their birth-grounds in the rivers when they need to spawn.

    And brown bears fish the salmon out of the streams, apparently a bit like a certain tacky martial arts-fishing commercial.

    So then the calcium phosphate ends up on the dry land again (directly or in brown bear poo)!!!.

    For the rest I think it's mostly Morocco and Algeria that have large phosphate reserves left.

    If you want to alleviate the problem yourself, consider pissing over your compost heap (that assumes that you HAVE a compost heap, and that you do it while the neighbours aren't watching).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Do bears fish in the woods?

      So the only land creature eating seafood are bears?

      Think about it...

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    civili Z ation - your lack of education calls to question the rest of your article. Seriously - ever heard of spell check?

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


      Oh, my... next you'll tell us that red is a color?

    2. MajorTom


      Vlad's reply was perfect. But in case it went over your head, AC, remember this is a British IT news site, and the Brits and USAnians spell words differently. Beware the language barrier:

      fertiliser / fertilizer

      colour / color

      licence / license


      1. Dan Paul


        And you might note that the dot com version rolls over to the version so whats your point?

        The only language barrier there is is the one in you own little mind!

        ElReg is INTERNATIONAL.

        1. Mike VandeVelde

          "ElReg is INTERNATIONAL."

          And so they use English (most/almost all of the time), which is used all over the world, which billions of people can read without any trouble. Then there is American, the simplified spelling version of English for simpler people, used only in the USA, also the exclusive home of a mad system of weights and measurements.

          1. ravenviz Silver badge

            Re: "ElReg is INTERNATIONAL."

            I believe Noah Webster sought English spelling reform given an opportunity to do so at the dawn of a new culture. By way of analogy, pints and litres can be used to measure the same quantity, and in a world where both are used, bothering to understand the difference and what the conversion is allows you to understand how much beer you want to buy instead of pontificating about how it's measured.

          2. cortland

            Re: "ElReg is INTERNATIONAL."

            And here's your Thruppence. Yeah; I was there, when.

    3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge


      Have you ever heard of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)?

    4. Dan Paul


      Piss off you pedantic wanker, I'll spell any way I want to. The use of z to replace s, c versus s or the whole concept of unneccesary vowels like a U in color. The American version of spell check is different than yours. Too fucking bad!

      Your title shows exactly how well you were educated.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        Dan Paul, you have an upvote from me as I (and most others I'm sure) understand and respect the differences between the various flavo(u)rs of English.

        I love a bit of pedantry but AC was out of order.

        But please don't call us Brits out on a perceived unnecessary use of U, that usage is necessary for us old bean.

        Toodle pip,


        1. Dan Paul



          Thanks for the upvote, but you should note the very same reason why I don't use it is likely the same reason why you Brits do use "U". In my case, sadistic 1960's Catholic Nun's (the horror) and their yardsticks versus sadistic Headmasters and their switches. Spell check really has little to do with it (Who do you think you are, Canadian? Put your hand out. Swaaack!) I have the crooked knuckles to prove it. The only thing I am glad of from that period is a comprehension of why one should have some respect for "authoritay" as Cartman is known to say.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          Us poor Canadians... Right up against the USA but many raised with propour Englisuh spellinug. Mix in our wonderfully colourful and cherished Québécoise brethren who often pronounce " " (space) as "FAKKIN". It's language turmoil.

      2. smartypants


        "whole concept of unneccesary vowels like a U in color"

        I don't think any english speaker of any flavo(u)r is going to get far trying to claim that their particular dialect of this wonderful bastard language is somehow rational, as anyone who's had to learn english as a second language will tell you from bitter experience.

        My particular favourite is the 24* different pronunciations of the 'ough' ending.

        (*just kidding)

      3. ravenviz Silver badge


        And I thought we were talking about "fertili"&CHAR(113+(2*(Country$="UK"))+(9*(Country$="USA")))&"er"!

    5. Marshalltown


      You want to recall the remark often attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

      "I have nothing but contempt for a man who can spell a word in but one way."

      Anyone who was required to read English literature in high school or college in the US actually would know that "civilisation" is a common British spelling. So there is a potential lack of education - or memory failure - showing but just whose?

    6. Michael Wojcik Silver badge


      You'd have easily won Troll of the Week with this - obviously bogus spelling flame, use of LOL, good-sized catch, etc - but posting anonymously is an automatic disqualification.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What is the problem he says will occur?

    Are we going to run out of nitrogen somehow? Pretty tough, considering it is 80% of our atmosphere!

    Are we putting too much nitrogen into the fields, and therefore the oceans? What is he saying that is causing in the oceans? And if too much nitrogen is the problem, why he's complaining about not enough nitrogen in Africa? The reason they don't use enough there is that they are poor, and fertilizer costs money.

    I live in the US midwest, home to some of the best farmland in the world. I don't really know farmers or farming personally, but from what I understand it has all gotten very scientific around here in the last decade or two. They do tests on the soil and determine the exact amount of fertilizer they need, and often put different amounts in different areas of the same field as it isn't uniform even on the small scale. There are different application technologies to reduce the amount that runs off and keep it in the field.

    Maybe they're still using too much, and I'm sure in a lot of places this type of science hasn't made it yet, but this may be a problem that solves itself without raising alarm bells about ending civilization as we know it....if indeed there is really even any problem at all. Too many Chicken Littles telling us the world is ending to keep straight all the reasons why we'll all be dead before I can reach 100. Not to mention all of those in the past who told us we should have never made it this far, like Malthus.

    1. Dan Paul

      Re: What is the problem he says will occur?

      Wholeheartedly agree with your comment. I live in upstate New York, second only to Wisconsin in Dairy production and far more agricultural than down staters can ever comprehend. They'd fall over dead if they ever smelled our DairyAir and they can all kiss mine.

      The algae bloom issue in the Great Lakes is more related to (pardon the pun) piss poor sewage treatment and too many users than agricultural run off. Our farmers are pretty stingy with excess nutrients because they PAY for them. Those down staters have the audacity to come into our "right to farm" communities and complain about the smell when the "honey" trucks are out spreading organic fertilizer. They don't know a damn thing except they buy any overpriced stuff from "Whole Foods" just for the name. Organic my ass!

      Those same "Chicken Littles" have been whining for the past 50 years that I would be dead or starving in ten years, fisrt because of global cooling, then warming, now this.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: all gotten very scientific around here in the last decade or two.

      Actually farming in the US has pretty much always been very science oriented. Washington and Jefferson are both noted for their scientific attention to their farming practices and the attention they paid to scientists from Europe who were working on what was then the cutting edge of science. The important thing about those scientists is that they usually had cash or possibly even immediate survival riding on the accuracy of their science.

      You are correct about the application of fertilizers and pesticides. A friend of mine works for a small outfit that offers one such service. The farmer contracts with them to provide advice. The company has the farmer provide the GPS coordinates that define the perimeters of the farm. Then the company uses satellite imagery combined with local tests to provide maps of how much fertilizer, seed, pesticide and even water to put on the field to maximize crop yield. In some cases the data is effectively sent over the internet to the farm machinery that is used to perform the actual work. Yes, even the small farmers do it.

    3. Triggerfish

      Re: What is the problem he says will occur?

      Excess Nitrogen tend to damage reefs, to much algae and it drowns out the corals, (silt run off doesn't help either), some soft corals can deal with this to some degree, but with stony corals its a bit of a death knell generally speaking they tend to be very sensitive to water conditions. This means you don't get the same biodiversity on the reef, stony corals are also the bones of a reef as well so I guess it may affect that as well.

      A fair bit of Nitrogen probably comes from other sources as well running into the water system, rotting waste, bad sewage etc.

      nitrogen in the water system, fresh or sea also cause Algae blooms these can literally suffocate an area of all available oxygen, and they overrun plants, taking away a lot of what they need, ironically enough including nitrogen meaning its harder to get the ecosystem of a lake or river back in balance.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Early warning system

    I don't know how they do it but the moment there is an article by Lewis on green matters the activists flock to the comments just like gulls to a garbage tip showing just as much understanding as the gulls.

    If we could activate that early warning system our security forces could have it much easier at times of high alert.

  13. Mountain Man

    Not to worry mates, we will all kill each other long before the farmers get us.

  14. PeteA

    Nothing important to civilisation after 1914?

    "Everything important to civilisation," he contends, took place prior to 1914: he specifically mentions "the development of agriculture, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution".

    If Professor Carpenter doesn't believe that the development of solid-state electronics (the transistor in particular) isn't important to a modern civilisation which relies on information technology for everything from the banking system to the transportation (e.g. avionics) and uses that as the starting point for an argument then he doesn't have much credibility to me.

  15. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    according to an American limnologist

    Is he going out on a lim here?

  16. Fungus Bob

    For your consideration:

  17. skeptical i

    No feedlot runoff?

    While agricultural runoff has been a problem for some areas (and, as has been pointed out above, many farmers are taking steps to keep the ferts they pay for on the land and in the plants), wasn't there also concern about feedlots being a problem? Large numbers of livestocks pooping out piles of manure that may or may not be secured on-site against a hard rain?

    1. Haro

      Re: No feedlot runoff?

      That was a big problem in Canada, and then there are the giant pig farms. But before all that shit destroys the world, it has to get past people drinking it, and the lakes turning green. Thus, there is a great deal of science and technology on this issue. The best approaches are things like soil drilling, and GM crops that need less fertilizer and pesticides. And the elimination of horrible farm subsidies. I blame the Europeans for their weirdo attitudes on GM. :)

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Clearly Herr Carpenter never bothered to talk to a farmer before he started spewing his nonsense. Farmers do not spend one single dime more than they must on their crops.

  19. TheWeddingPhotographer


    Might.. maybe.. could possibly

    Cut the conjecture. Give us real science

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