In an agricultural context, the term mineral might take one’s thoughts straight to a balanced livestock diet or to the most recent soil test. It might lend itself to a water or blood test.
But rarely are minerals thought of as something we consume by ingestion or external use.
I checked out the amount of minerals that are used per person per year in North America just to construct the things we use like roads and buildings and those items we procure such as fast food, dishes or detergent, phones or makeup.
The per capita annual use of salt is 383 pounds, primarily for food manufacturing but this also includes salt for making chemicals and for de-icing winter roads. Soda ash (35 pounds) is used to manufacture food and medicine, detergent, glass and is applied as a water treatment. The six pounds of zinc consumed each year come in the form of skin cream, health-care items, nutritional supplements and to make rust-resistant metals and alloys, paints and rubber. Clay is used to make floor and wall tile, cement and paper, bricks, cat litter and dishes — and that takes 148 pounds per person per year.
The heavy hitters are stone for the production of chemicals and to construct buildings, bridges and roads.
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Keeping us on the road takes 10,765 pounds of stone per person per year. We keep digging up 7,254 pounds of sand and gravel per person to continue building. Stone, sand and gravel are the classmates of cement, and shelter and transport take 685 pounds of cement per year. Those tough transport containers will use another 275 pounds of iron ore.
Construction also accounts for 34 pounds of aluminum per person annually as it is an important ingredient in beverage containers, autos and airplanes. On the inside of buildings and in those modes of transportation we find copper (12 pounds) and manganese (five pounds) along with lead (11 pounds). The one most familiar to farmers is phosphate, which is an ingredient in both fertilizer and animal feed and accounts for 168 pounds per capita use per year.
Generating a finished product from these minerals will annually expend another 956 gallons of petroleum, 101,338 cubic feet of natural gas, 3,593 pounds of coal and 0.12 pound of uranium for every person — every year.
During our lifetime, according to one estimate, we will require an astounding 3.19 million pounds of a multitude of minerals, metals and fuels (including 1.54 troy ounces of gold, used particularly in electronics).
To appreciate a common application of minerals and metals consider the cellphone.
The manufacture of a cellphone uses more than 60 mined products including arsenic in the amplifier and the receiver, along with gold, copper, gallium arsenide, palladium, silver and tungsten in the circuitry and magnesium in the phone case. That plastic wrap is part of the 286 pounds of the annual per capita use of plastic.
The mining industry accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s energy consumption and an electrifying 80 per cent of the power use. In coal mining as an example, excessive power is used to create fuel or power while methane along with mercury, lead, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, arsenic, chromium compounds, hydrogen fluoride, hydrochloric acid, heavy metals and particulates which damage respiration are released. Waste sludge storage and acid mine drainage especially in mountaintop extraction are exceptionally damaging. Coal also has the highest level of carbon dioxide release when burned compared to all other fuels (214 to 228 BTUs compared to natural gas at 117 BTUs).
Regardless of the mineral mined, there is currently a heavy dependency on it for our daily routine. Continuation down this path leads to eventual ruination of our air, land and water as well as to our bodies. Is agriculture the answer?
A computer chip, like the one found on your device, that is made from chicken feathers and soybean resin — both agricultural products — has the ability to move electronic signals twice as fast as silicon chips. Eggshells are being made into bioplastics.
Hemp is an ancient and amazingly versatile plant used for food, oil, clothing, rope, insulation and now in concrete. There is an opportunity to rethink the use of hemp for fuel and construction. Concrete is also now made out of invasive species trees and recycled steel dust, while bone matter and seashells create cement. Flax, wool and milkweed make great insulation.
Mushrooms produce mycelium, the new glue, and gourds hold promise for building blocks. Bamboo is strong and also makes beautiful soft clothing. Recycled plastic is now made into building material and in asphalt mixes. Heating with food, fibre and marine waste is well founded and the value to cold Canadians in the adoption of ground-source heat cannot be ignored.
Our annual consumption of minerals and mineral-made products such as plastic far outweighs our consumption of food, and yet it is food we cannot live without.
Perhaps this is a good time to revisit our own values and needs as consumers and to move the agenda forward as agricultural innovators; championing change with creative, affordable, regenerative and viable solutions.