Now that I am a father, I consider what my child eats each and every day. My thoughts often turn to food production, and the place I currently call home.
Phosphate and the Port of Tampa
Many people do not know that Tampa is the largest port in Florida and the 10th largest in the nation. It has achieved this rank by being the biggest exporter of phosphate and phosphate-related materials in the United States. If you are not an agronomist or geologist, think fertilizers.
Now consider what role fertilizers play in the price of food. The answers may surprise you. Suffice to say, our ability to provide enough food to feed for our growing population is largely dependent upon phosphate production.
Not only is it getting more expensive to mine phosphate in the US, but Florida’s reserves are running out. One only needs to look at the Port of Tampa’s steadily declining tonnage statistics to confirm this fact. Other countries such as Africa, Australia, and China have dramatically stepped up their production of phosphate, but there are two problems with this: one, phosphate is a non-renewable resource and two, it will cost the US more and more to acquire it as the cost of energy continues to rise. The environmental problems also present further risks and costs.
Massive Dead Zones
Another equally important source of food for humans comes from our oceans, and there is little doubt that we are over harvesting sea life in conjunction with the destruction of their fragile habitats. One of those destructive agents is phosphate. The Bread Basket of America, or the Midwestern US, is pumping vast quantities of phosphate in to the massive watershed that eventually makes up the Mississippi River. Every summer, an enormous dead zone roughly the size of New Jersey forms in the Gulf at the mouth of this very river. A similar occurrence to the Gulf happens in Tampa Bay but of smaller size.
Impacts on Tourism
Also here in Florida, scientists have confirmed that runoff starting in Orlando steadily makes its way down the river systems running through the heart of the state. It finally reaches reefs near the Keys and slowly destroys them. Work is being done to leach out excess phosphate, nitrogen, and other toxins, but it may be too late. Further degradation to Florida’s fisheries and recreational opportunities can have enormous and negative economic impacts.
I do not want to ignore or discount the economic ramifications of a declining phosphate industry in Florida. It has long created jobs in mining, production, and shipping. But Florida and specifically Tampa Bay has a long history of reinventing itself and discovering new sources of revenue. From Henry Plant’s railroads to farming and ranching to the cigar industry, we’ve seen the ebb and flow of successful enterprises.
What can be done about all of this?
There are alternative local sources of phosphate including, compost, bonemeal, and urine diversion, but we need to tackle the amount of phosphate we waste. The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) needs to work with communities and farmers to control the degradation of land and harmful runoff.
Steps in the right direction have recently been taken. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsak has made $320 million available for conservation projects in a number of key states along the Mississippi River Basin.
Meanwhile, you can seek out food sources that are closer to home and encourage localized organic farming. You can even start your own vegetable gardens. None of this will eradicate our reliance on large scale farming practices, but it will save energy and provide food that is far better for us and our planet.
Are there any interesting steps you take to feed your family?
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