Dan Egan Chases Down the Devil’s Element

Journalist and author Dan Egan grew up in Green Bay and spent many childhood weekends and family vacations in Door County, playing in the water and along the shores of Lake Michigan. Then he made a beat out of those waters as a journalist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he earned acclaim for his in-depth reporting about the health of the Great Lakes. 

Now the pulitzer-nominated author of the Death and Life of the Great Lakes has written his second book and, not surprisingly, it connects to those waters as well. 

In The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and A World Out of Balance, Egan dives into the fascinating – and sometimes frightening – history of a substance integral to life on this planet that is inching ever closer to becoming as contested as the waters of our lakes. 

Door County Pulse Podcasts · The Devil’s Element with Dan Egan and Mark Holey

Phosphorus is in every living cell on the planet, and much of the supply that farmers use to fertilize their fields to feed the ever-growing population of the planet is mined from just a few deposits. 

“The rule of thumb was that a cow needs an acre,” Egan said. “A cow eats the grass, poops, and that grows the grass, over and over. That wasn’t good enough for us when we had more people. We broke that by introducing chemical fertilizers and we really changed the way we look at life now.”

Just like fossil fuels, the supply of those chemicals isn’t unlimited. By some estimates, Egan said, we could have as few as 80 years’ supply left. 

“It took hundreds of millions or billions of years for these deposits to accrue,” he said. “We’ve only been gnawing on it for 120 years.” 

That broken cycle is the essence of the book.

“It’s the idea of the circle of life broken,” Egan said. “We took a circle and turned it into a straight line. Today that line runs from mines in Florida [where the major U.S. deposit is found] or Ukraine or Morocco to fertilizer factories to crops and then finally to water.”

When too much of it ends up in the water, it speeds up eutrophication, the reduction of dissolved oxygen in water, creating huge algae blooms that can create dead zones where fish can’t survive, such as the one created in the southern basin of Green Bay.

Though Egan said his two and a half years of work on the book didn’t unearth many rosy scenarios for the future of phosphorus, he said not all scenarios are doom and gloom – just our current path. 

“It really comes down to restoring that ethic of re-use,” he said. Some of that is in technology, such as efforts in Germany to extract nearly all of the phosphorus out of wastewater and harvesting phosphorus from manure. 

But some of the solutions that could yield immediate benefits come in policy.

“We have to rethink ethanol,” Egan said. “About 40% of the corn we grow goes to ethanol. It takes a lot of phosphorus to grow that. Anyone who isn’t a corn farmer or in the business of refining corn into ethanol knows that ethanol is a bad idea. But if you want to be president you have to do well in Iowa and to do well in Iowa you have to pledge allegiance to ethanol.”

Another tack is to revisit the agricultural exemption from the Clean Water Act. 

“When we wrote that, farmers got a pass because they were considered nonpoint polluters, as opposed to smoke stacks and pipes,” Egan said. “But farming was a lot different then. Fifty years down the road we have 8,000-head dairies. They are by definition a point source of pollution and they need to be regulated better. Too many water bodies are getting trashed and made useless. We shouldn’t be on a crash course between safe water and feeding ourselves.”

A cow can produce 18 times the waste of humans. And we don’t treat it. In 1972 we couldn’t treat it because it was dispersed in lagoons. Now we can treat it, and it’s going to cost something. But not swimming in a lake costs something too.”