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The phosphorus paradox

Pete Kleinman had a song in his heart. Now I can't get it out of my head.

  • By Rona Kobell on November 04, 2013
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Last month, at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I found myself in a conversation with two other reporters. Between them, these two guys have won every major prize in journalism, distinguishing both themselves and their newspapers with top-notch environmental investigations.

One suggests to the other that maybe it’s time to do a story on phosphorus. After all, isn’t there a concern about peak phosphorus? We could run out of this non-renewable element – essential in everything from growing our food to building the foundation of life in our DNA. When that happens, what will we do?

As these two reporters romp through the periodic table, talking about possible other investigative projects, I try to follow along. But mainly, I’m trying not to embarrass myself. For there is a song in my head that I dare not sing out loud. The first line: “I have a lover…who’s not human…”

I blame Pete Kleinman and his super-catchy, sometimes irreverent and clearly homemade Youtube video, The Phosphorus Song.

Kleinman’s lover isn’t actually a lover. It’s the 15th element on the periodic table. But he spends so much time with phosphorus that it’s easy to see how he made parallels. Phosphorus once seemed stable, he sings. But now it’s fickle. You can’t predict what it’s going to do. In Pennsylvania, she runs right off. In Maryland, straight down. And just when you think you’ve figured her out, spending millions on programs to keep her happy and contained (soil conservation in this case), she goes ahead and dissolves into water anyway, leaving you back on the trail of an enigma.

This is the paradox of phosphorus. While many places grapple with a global shortage, we in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have too much. Currently, the Maryland Department of Agriculture is working on rules to draw down the amount of phosphorus in Eastern Shore soils and set limits for how much would be allowed to enter soil in the future. Pennsylvania is also re-examining its phosphorus rules.

And here’s where it gets a little less lovey and a little more, um, gross. Phosphorus is excreted in manure – that of chickens, cows and humans. We may be running out of phosphate rock, but we are constantly excreting more phosphorus. The key remains figuring out how to turn that waste into something useful. We have examined various ways – burning it, converting it into a fertilizer additive – but none seem to have completely taken off yet.

Yet another piece of the enigma that is phosphorus is the perception that we have already solved this problem. In the 1980s, there was a huge kerfuffle about phosphates in detergent. Maryland banned them, and so did other states. On the agriculture side, farmers embraced no-till farming, which reduced erosion and therefore the loss of phosphorus that binds with soil particles. People largely assumed the problem was solved, until soil tests began showing elevated levels of phosphorus in areas with high concentrations of animals. In our watershed, that would be the Delmarva Peninsula, the Shenandoah Valley, and Lancaster County.

“If you look at the world today through the lens of phosphorus, it’s a world where we know so much more today than we did before,” said Kleinman, who works for the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service in State College, PA. “The whole point being – we thought we’d licked it, and then we came to realize that dissolved phosphorus was overriding a lot of the benefits we’d seen.”

New information was challenging the conventional wisdom about phosphorus, and science wasn’t sure what to do about it. As Kleinman’s friend and colleague Heather Karsten likes to tell her Penn State students, nitrogen is all about “50 ways to leave your lover.” It runs off the land, it releases into the air, it becomes volatile gasses. Phosphorus, on the other hand, is the stable guy your mother wants you to marry. Well, he looks stable, but eventually, he’ll run off too.

(By the way, I do appreciate these lover analogies, but I’m starting to wonder what’s in the water over there in Happy Valley.)

I’ve been lucky enough to travel with Kleinman to various sites in Pennsylvania to investigate phosphorus pathways, and to the Princess Anne farm where he and several colleagues are testing out some new management practices. We’ve had long chats about phosphorus and the contradictions it brings up. He agrees that phosphorus work keeps you on your toes. You can never get comfortable, he said, because just when you think you understand what she’s going to do next, she surprises you.

Kleinman jokes that he’s most proud to have worked eutrophication into a song. But more seriously, he hopes we will recognize the complications of our dependence on, and aversion to, phosphorus. We need it for our cheap food, but we have to find a way to get it out of our waterways.

Kleinman said his song is not “USDA-approved.” He wrote it at home on a lark, though he has performed it, to rousing applause, for his students. His wife has even sung it with him on guitar. He hadn’t even realized his friend put it on YouTube until much later. To date, the song has gotten 906 views. (And yes, probably six of them were me.)

Kleinman said he’s taking guitar lessons, but he’s not sure he’ll be romping through the periodic table. Too busy running a lab for the USDA.

Still, I’m a romantic. I’m holding out for an ode to karst.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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