Cities have nutrient recycling role too, soil scientist says

Winnipeg continues to be the province's largest generator of nutrients such as phosphorous

It’s time to begin recycling nutrients from the province’s largest confined feeding operation — Winnipeg, a University of Manitoba soil scientist says.

Don Flaten

Don Flaten

“If you look at Manitoba’s largest confined feeding operation, it is Winnipeg,” said Don Flaten, speaking at Crop Connect in Winnipeg last week. “And to just be putting the waste water nutrients into Brady Landfill and the Red River is insanity in the long term.”

While some in the public only take note of phosphorus when it’s deemed to be in excess, the soil scientist said phosphate is in fact a finite resource.

That doesn’t mean producers should buy into the hype around so-called “peak phosphorus,” but it does mean that public policy and the sciences should be looking at long-term solutions for managing and recapturing nutrients like phosphorus, he said.

“Based on our rate of consumption in 2015, we have 309 years of phosphate rock left in reserves… so you can sleep easy tonight, it won’t run out in our lifetimes,” Flaten told producers. But, he added, accessing those reserves isn’t always guaranteed.

“Most of the world’s reserves are in North Africa,” he said. “So the problem isn’t with the reserves, it’s geopolitical.”

Currently, Canada doesn’t produce any phosphorite, but a mine is planned for Lac à Paul, Quebec. Significant phosphite reserves were discovered there in the 1990s, and following the increased demand and higher prices in 2008, a development plan was put forward to have a $1.2-billion operation up and running by 2019.

But that doesn’t let cities like Winnipeg off the hook when it comes to nutrient recycling.

“In the long term, it is absolutely essential,” said Flaten. “Whether it’s 100, 200, 300 or 500 years before we run out of phosphate rock for fertilizer and feed supplementation, this is completely lunacy not to recycle this relatively scarce and absolute essential nutrient after our agricultural products are transported to cities.”

The problem lies with convincing urbanites and policy-makers that it’s a worthwhile cause, even if it adds to the tax bill. The City of Winnipeg is actively looking at a plan to compost food and pet waste that would divert nutrients from the landfill. But many homeowners have balked at the idea of another municipal fee.

“Whether it’s waste water treatment and recovery of nutrients or whether it’s composting of pet waste, there is a lot of push-back from city residents that don’t want to pay more taxes,” Flaten said. “And future generations can’t bid in today’s marketplace to say, you know what? It’s worth that $100 a year, but that future generation can’t put that money on the table in this market economy.

“The question becomes, how do we convey the importance of long-term nutrient management in an integrated food system?”

Flaten said it takes long-term vision to prepare for future challenges before they actually arise, pointing to the 25-year-long Tobacco Creek Model Watershed project as an example of foresight and planning that has provided much insight into run-off-based water systems.

But long-term research projects don’t always fit well with four-year electoral cycles or one-year academic plans, he said.

“There are a number of these long-term challenges that we need to continue working on, continue to address,” said Flaten. “One of our most important jobs at the University of Manitoba is to anticipate some of these long-term future challenges, and even if they are not economically viable in the short term, be working on solutions that will help us in the long term.”

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.


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