“We got this one locked… TRUST ME!” ;D
A new article in the journal Science zooms way out to the big picture of humanity’s tenure managing the planet. It does so by zooming in sharply on a neglected, hugely important, enabler of life on Earth: soil.
Soil is the foundation for everything we’ve built — all agriculture and civilization must grow from healthy soils. And we’re heading straight for some hard limits, beyond which soils will no longer support us. Or, as UC Berkeley soil scientist Ronald Amundson and his colleagues put it in this paper, “Soil is the living epidermis of the planet.”
Soil helps regulate the carbon and water cycles — it’s a reservoir for both cycles, buffering them from shocks and feeding us, all at the same time. But, Amundson et al. warn:
Profound changes are on the horizon for these interconnected functions — particularly sparked by changes to climate and food production — that will likely reverberate through society this century. Ultimately, the way in which we directly and indirectly manage our planet’s soil will be interwoven within our future success as a species.
We are already running into a hard limit when it comes to soil nutrients. Plants need nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium to grow. Microbes, certain plants, and human factories can pull nitrogen out of the air (there’s plenty of it in the atmosphere), but the other nutrients have to come either from mining or recycling.
When a farmer harvests a bunch of carrots (say) and takes them to the market, she’s trucking nutrients off the land. When you eat those carrots, you are using those nutrients to build muscles and blood cells, and eventually you flush them down the toilet. The only way to recycle those nutrients is to use human waste as fertilizer.
For a lot of reasons (contamination with prescription drugs, heavy metals, and pathogens in the sewage system) people dislike the idea of turning municipal sewage into fertilizer.
Those flushed nutrients never leave the system in the largest sense, of course: They end up in lakes and oceans and landfills. Phosphorus in the ocean can turn into an algal bloom, which turns into fish, which birds eat and poop out, which we mine for fertilizer. But that cycle takes place far too slowly to meet the needs of hungry humanity.
The only other option is to mine those nutrients, and we are running out:
The growing demand for P [phosphorus] has recently caused an increase in the cost of rock phosphate from about $80 per U.S. ton in 1961 to up to $450 per ton in 2008. Prices since then have fluctuated but are now at about $700 per ton … K [potassium] prices were ~$875 per metric ton in 2009 yet are expected to reach $1500 by 2020.
And the authors point out that these elements are unevenly distributed. The biggest phosphorus mine in the U.S. will be depleted in 20 years, and geopolitical balance of power may get shaken up as nations and corporations begin competing for the remaining reserves in places like Morocco. Oil wars are one thing; at least you can replace oil with other forms of energy. But it’s physically impossible to replace a basic element like P or K.
Soil and human security in the 21st century, Amundson et al.
Thinking about soil, of course, also means thinking about climate change, because there are gigatons of carbon (or C) locked up in the earth. We’ve already released a lot of that; indeed, farming has had a greater impact than fossil fuel emissions:
Based on the global agricultural land area, cultivation has likely released between 50 and 70 Gt of C to the atmosphere over the course of human history, and the combined cultivation and biomass burning contributions to atmospheric CO2 exceeded that of fossil fuel emissions well into the 20th century. However, the agricultural imprint on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations appeared much earlier in the Holocene.
Soil can also help get us out of this predicament:
Under changed management or through land abandonment, global agricultural soils have the capacity to reapproach their original C storage and regain up to a half a decade of present fossil fuel emissions (over a multidecade period). Better stewardship of domesticated soils that leads to higher organic matter contents is a valuable practice from an ecological perspective and from an agronomic point of view. There is now a large body of research on the rates of C sequestration under differing management practices.
Those management techniques are spelled out in the citations (here are a few of the papers cited). We need to be building up the soil rather than eroding it. And, if we want to avoid fighting wars over phosphorus and potassium, we need to figure out ways of closing the loop so that we’re not simply flushing those elements down the drain.
Global soil resources under stress
The future of humanity is intertwined with the future of Earth’s soil resources. Soil provides for agriculture, improves water quality, and buffers greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Yet human activities, including agricultural soil erosion, are rapidly degrading soil faster than it is naturally replenished. At this rate, human security over the next century will be severely threatened by unsustainable soil management practices. Amundson et al. review recent advances in understanding global soil resources, including how carbon stored in soil responds to anthropogenic warming. Translating this knowledge into practice is the biggest challenge remaining.
Science, this issue 10.1126/science.1261071
Earth’s soil has formed by processes that have maintained a persistent and expansive global soil mantle, one that in turn provided the stage for the evolution of the vast diversity of life on land. The underlying stability of soil systems is controlled by their inherent balance between inputs and losses of nutrients and carbon. Human exploitation of these soil resources, beginning a few thousand years ago, allowed agriculture to become an enormous success. The vastness of the planet and its soil resources allowed agriculture to expand, with growing populations, or to move, when soil resources were depleted. However, the practice of farming greatly accelerated rates of erosion relative to soil production, and soil has been and continues to be lost at rates that are orders of magnitude greater than mechanisms that replenish soil. Additionally, agricultural practices greatly altered natural soil carbon balances and feedbacks. Cultivation thus began an ongoing slow ignition of Earth’s largest surficial reservoir of carbon—one that, when combined with the anthropogenic warming of many biomes, is capable of driving large positive feedbacks that will further increase the accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases and exacerbate associated climate change.
The study of soil is now the domain of diverse schools of physical and biological science. Rapid advances in empirical and theoretical understanding of soil processes are occurring. These advances have brought an international, and global, perspective to the study of soil processes and focused the implications of soil stewardship for societal well-being. Major advances in the past decade include our first quantitative understanding of the natural rates of soil production, derived from isotopic methods developed by collaboration of geochemists and geomorphologists. Proliferation of research by soil and ecological scientists in the northern latitudes continues to illuminate and improve estimates of the magnitude of soil carbon storage in these regions and its sensitivity and response to warming. The role of soil processes in global carbon and climate models is entering a period of growing attention and increasing maturity. These activities in turn reveal the severity of soil-related issues at stake for the remainder of this century—the need to rapidly regain a balance to the physical and biological processes that drive and maintain soil properties, and the societal implications that will result if we do not.
Both great challenges and opportunities exist in regards to maintaining soil’s role in food, climate, and human security. Erosion continues to exceed natural rates of soil renewal even in highly developed countries. The recent focus by economists and natural scientists on potential future shortages of phosphorus fertilizer offers opportunities for novel partnerships to develop efficient methods of nutrient recycling and redistribution systems in urban settings. Possibly the most challenging issues will be to better understand the magnitude of global soil carbon feedbacks to climate change and to mitigating climate change in a timely fashion. The net results of human impacts on soil resources this century will be global in scale and will have direct impacts on human security for centuries to come.
Human security has and will continue to rely on Earth’s diverse soil resources. Yet we have now exploited the planet’s most productive soils. Soil erosion greatly exceeds rates of production in many agricultural regions. Nitrogen produced by fossil fuel and geological reservoirs of other fertilizers are headed toward possible scarcity, increased cost, and/or geopolitical conflict. Climate change is accelerating the microbial release of greenhouse gases from soil organic matter and will likely play a large role in our near-term climate future. In this Review, we highlight challenges facing Earth’s soil resources in the coming century. The direct and indirect response of soils to past and future human activities will play a major role in human prosperity and survival.
Earlier this week we started looking at fertilisers. We covered nitrogen and potassium. These have some crucial investment opportunities – but it’s all good news for humanity, as we learn to produce more of these fertilisers, more sustainably, and with less energy.
However, there’s one more plant macronutrient you need to know about, and that’s phosphorus. On Tuesday, I promised you some bad news about it.
Actually, I’ve got two pieces of bad news. Firstly, phosphorus is in finite supply. We can’t make more of it. We can’t “fix” it from the air; it’s mined from rocks, and these are slowly running out. Shockingly, there’s no global body overseeing the supply of phosphorus. It’s like humanity is floating in the sea on a wooden boat, and some people are breaking pieces off the boat to use the wood for fuel – while everyone else ignores the problem. Eventually, this could end very badly.
Secondly, to make matters worse, almost the whole world’s supply is controlled by a handful of states: Russia, China, the US, and Morocco/Western Sahara. Morocco alone has around three-quarters of total known reserves – it’s the Saudi Arabia of phosphorous. It’s fair to say “known reserves” aren’t necessarily something to worry about – because there may be large supplies of any given mineral awaiting discovery elsewhere. But equally, it’s potentially very risky to rely on the discovery process to come up with a replacement for a supply that’s been wastefully used. Furthermore, to reduce geopolitical risk, any new reserves would have to be found outside of the small handful of states listed above.
So what could the consequences of this be?
Could there be a war over Phosphorus?
A quick glance at what OPEC did with oil shows how vulnerable we are to cartels being formed to take control of strategic mineral reserves. Could we see a war on phosphorus in the future? I think it’s certainly a possibility.
As time goes on we have to use deposits that are lower quality and harder to extract. Prices have already spiked in recent decades, going up from a former peak of $300/ton in the mid-1990s to a new high of a little under $900 in the late 2000s. This inevitably impacts on food prices. It’s notable that we’ve seen revolutions and war in many middle-income countries since the financial crisis. These events have roughly coincided with this “new normal” of high phosphorus prices. Phosphorus isn’t the primary cause of rising food prices, but it’s a part of the mix. And likewise, rising food prices aren’t the sole cause of wars – but again, they are part of the mix.
The 20th century was indisputably the century of oil. That age is over. Portugal recently did four straight days without using any fossil fuels at all in electricity generation. Soon, we won’t need much fossil fuel – as renewables are taking over our energy supply. But we can’t make phosphorus from the sun and the wind. We can’t make more of it at all. The best we can do is get better at finding it, recycling it, and cleaning up any contaminated deposits we find.
There are several ways this problem can be a profit opportunity.
Firms like Lenntech and Ostara are in the business of recovering phosphorus from the least glamorous place you can think of: sewage facilities. There’s also huge potential for recycling waste from farm slurry pits – and it’s even possible that we’ll end up mining sewage sludge from landfills.
Even without a phosphorus supply crisis, recovery is currently important – because phosphate pollution causes huge problems when it’s washed into freshwater. Waste phosphate is still active as a fertiliser. It therefore causes major ecosystem disruption, contributing to “dead zones” where all the oxygen is used up in a water body by rotting, overgrown algal blooms. I recently saw this myself in Berlin’s Tiergarten – roughly the equivalent of Hyde Park. The shoreline was full of dead fish, and those that were still alive were bobbing around on the surface, trying desperately to catch some air. Predators and prey ignored each other as they struggled to survive. The stench was overpowering, and even people on passing trains would cover their mouths with scarfs. It was a nightmarish scene, and one that is being repeated all around the world’s freshwater bodies and coastal zones. As pressure increases to manage phosphorus better, we’ll likely see more pressure for use of this type of recovery technology – and not just for pollution control, but for sustainable recovery. There’s currently a programme to harvest algae from America’s Great Lakes, for exactly this reason, and it’s being tested by David Blersch from the University of Buffalo.
Another process to be aware of comes from the deep sea. Mining firms like Nautilus Minerals are doing some seriously creative things when it comes to looking for new extraction opportunities, specifically from the seabed. Yep, we’re going to have to go to the depths of the ocean, if we want to keep eating. Nautilus’ current focus isn’t actually on phosphorus, but there’s plenty of it down there – so these pioneering deep-sea mining firms may ultimately end up serving the fertiliser market, too.
And finally, there’s plenty of horrible, dirty phosphorus around. Keep an eye out for firms developing processes to clean up phosphorus ores which are contaminated with heavy metals. Cadmium is a particular problem, as it’s toxic. As we have to use lower-purity supplies, these purification firms will be operating in a potential growth sector.
Finally, there’s another play here – and that’s obviously the software and data side. Firms like SMART! Fertilizer Management provide software tools to help farmers more intelligently apply fertilisers. This saves money, as well as using non-renewable resources more efficiently. Presently, the developing world is the most wasteful user of fertilisers – with China a particularly egregious example.
You may not have previously realised how much of an effect fertilisers have had on the world. When you next bite into a sandwich, remember that much of it wouldn’t be there without fertilisers. And with the information you now have, fertilisers can be as significant for your portfolio as they are for your lunch.
Food production requires application of fertilizers containing phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium on agricultural fields in order to sustain crop yields. However modern agriculture is dependent on phosphorus derived from phosphate rock, which is a non-renewable resource and current global reserves may be depleted in 50–100 years. While phosphorus demand is projected to increase, the expected global peak in phosphorus production is predicted to occur around 2030. The exact timing of peak phosphorus production might be disputed, however it is widely acknowledged within the fertilizer industry that the quality of remaining phosphate rock is decreasing and production costs are increasing. Yet future access to phosphorus receives little or no international attention. This paper puts forward the case for including long-term phosphorus scarcity on the priority agenda for global food security. Opportunities for recovering phosphorus and reducing demand are also addressed together with institutional challenges.
A dispute over Western Sahara’s phosphate reserves could disrupt food production around the globe.
Aided by the longest conveyor belt in the world, a steady stream of chalky white powder emerges on the North African coast from deep within the desert. The belt, its presence betrayed by the bright windswept powder scattered around it on the brown earth below, travels 61 miles across the rugged terrain of Western Sahara, from the mines of Bou Craa to Port El Aaiún, where massive ships transport its contents across the globe.
The white powder is phosphate rock—a commodity both valuable and vital. Without it, humanity’s growing population couldn’t feed itself. Phosphate, along with nitrogen, is one of the two most necessary components of synthetic fertilizer. But unlike nitrogen, which makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere, phosphate is a finite resource. And there’s no way to manufacture it.
Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco, just north along the coast, since 1975. If you include this disputed region, Morocco holds more than 72 percent of all phosphate-rock reserves in the world, according to the most recent United States Geological Survey study. The next closest country, China, has just shy of 6 percent. The rest is spread out in smaller pockets around the globe. Morocco aggressively and sometimes violently argues that the notion of Western Sahara statehood is illegitimate, and that the region’s rich supply of phosphate is theirs. As a result, Western Sahara has been the stage for a growing human-rights conflict as well as significant regional geopolitical tensions.
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“I’ve been to 70 countries, including Iraq under Saddam and Indonesia under Suharto,” says Stephen Zunes, an international-studies professor at the University of San Francisco.* “[Western Sahara] is the worst police state that I’ve ever seen.”
This political conflict, like the natural resource issues tangled into it, has remained obscure on the global front. But as other country’s domestic reserves of phosphate become more costly to extract in the coming decades, this disputed region could have more of a monopoly over phosphate than OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, has over oil—which has major implications for the future dynamics of food and its availability in the developing world.
* * *
In the 1960s, the widespread use of synthetic fertilizer, part of the Green Revolution, allowed millions of people who would have otherwise starved to be fed by dramatically expanding the land suitable for agriculture around the world. This was driven by the Haber process, which allows atmospheric nitrogen to be converted into a form biologically available for crops. But for any increase in nitrogen in soils, life also requires a commensurate increase in phosphorus, which is mined in the form of phosphate from geologic deposits around the world. The demand for mined phosphate skyrocketed.
No matter how impressive technological advances become, a Haber-like technique for creating phosphate will never exist: There is a fixed amount in the Earth, it’s stuck in the ground, and the only way to get it is to mine it. So now there’s a controversy about how much phosphate remains in the world, and how its distribution will affect food production in the future.
In 2009, a research paper based on then-current United States Geological Survey estimates of phosphate reserves sparked fear that the world was about to enter a period of “peak phosphorus.” Its authors argued that current reserves could be depleted within a century’s time. In response, the International Fertilizer Development Center—a non-profit NGO focusing on the fertilizer industry, food security, and global hunger—released its own independent study of phosphate reserves the following year. They estimated almost four times the USGS’s amount, allaying concerns over the commodity’s imminent disappearance.
Stephen Jasinski, the USGS specialist in charge of monitoring phosphate reserves, says that almost all of this massive increase came from a reinterpretation of data provided by Morocco’s state-run mining company back in the 1980s, as well as independent studies from the same time period. The USGS now accepts these new Moroccan values as accurate. But according to Olaf Weber, a professor of sustainability management at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, “it’s hard to figure out” exactly how much phosphate Morocco really has.
* * *
A great deal of this uncertainty likely comes from the region’s tense political situation. At the center of the conflict are the Sahrawi people, who have inhabited Western Sahara since before colonial times—a fact that Morocco contests—and have been fighting for the right to self-determination since Spain agreed to allow Morocco and Mauritania to split the area in 1975. (Mauritania later abandoned their claim to the region.)
According to Zunes, the Moroccan government squashes any hint of Sahrawi nationalism, follows foreigners, and bans the press. The United States, Morocco’s long-time ally, has acknowledged many of these issues in the State Department’s most recent human-rights report. Much of the native population now lives in Algerian refugee camps.
Thanks partly to foreign military support on both sides, an armed conflict following the 1975 occupation ended in a stalemate in 1991, when a United Nations treaty was signed by the Sahrawi nationalist movement, which is known as the Polisario Front, and the Moroccan government. The treaty installed a peacekeeping force referred to as MINURSO (an acronym for the French translation of United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) and laid the groundwork for a future referendum on Western Sahara statehood. Zunes argues that this vote has no chance of occurring due to the political structure of the UN.
MINURSO is the only UN peacekeeping force in the world without a mandate to report on human rights, and in March of this year, civilian MINURSO workers were briefly expelled from the region because the UN’s secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, used the word “occupation” during a visit to Algerian refugee camps. Now, the conflict is back in the news once again, because Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has been campaigning to rejoin the African Union, an organization Morocco left in 1984 when it recognized Western Saharan statehood.
* * *
Currently, the price of phosphate is not high enough for there to be an economic need for governments and private companies to rely on Western Sahara’s sources, says Weber; there are sufficient domestic or other international reserves. In fact, an increasing number of companies have been divesting their interest in Western Saharan phosphate due to investor concerns about human rights, says Eric Hagen, of the Western Sahara Resource Watch, a Norwegian-based NGO that monitors and advocates against the international trade of resources originating from Western Sahara.
But according to Stuart White, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, demand for phosphate in fertilizer will rise in the coming decades, partly due to demand from an increasingly developed Sub-Saharan Africa, which he describes as “a sleeping giant in terms of demand for phosphorus,” and also due to global dietary changes. While there has been a plateau in meat consumption in places like the U.S., Europe, and Australia, he says, places like Southeast Asia and China are seeing skyrocketing rates, and meat requires relatively more phosphate for production.
That means an increased reliance on the phosphate of Western Sahara. As the value of that resource increases, so too will the pressure to hold on to it. According to the Western Sahara Resource Watch, about 10 percent of Morocco’s phosphate income comes from the Western Saharan mine in Bou Craa. If that reflects, even broadly, the relative amounts of phosphate in Morocco’s undisputed territory and the disputed Western Sahara region, then Western Sahara is the second largest reserve of phosphate rock in the world. If Western Sahara gained independence, it would become a counter to the massive phosphate monopoly Morocco otherwise would enjoy as other reserves become less viable.
The dynamics of the entire phosphate market, then, could be shaped significantly by the conflict in Western Sahara, its resolution, or its continued stalemate. In 1975, a UN fact-finding mission to Western Sahara suggested that Morocco and Western Sahara combined would one day become the largest exporter of phosphate worldwide. Morocco has argued that its own reserves of phosphate are large enough to make the Western Saharan reserves insignificant. But, as Toby Shelly argues in Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony?, that position ignores the fact that an independent Western Sahara would significantly reduce Moroccan market share and their ability to control the price of the commodity.
The existence of a Moroccan monopoly would have a disproportionate effect on poorer countries, according to White and other researchers. In a 2011 Nature comment, the sustainability and natural resources scientists Jim Elser, of Arizona State University, and Elena Bennet, of McGill University, argued that “developing-world farmers cannot afford phosphate fertilizers even at today’s non-monopoly prices,” let alone in a future dominated only by Moroccan phosphate. “Many of the world’s food producers are in danger of becoming completely dependent on trade with Morocco, where press reports have emerged of Dubai-style luxury developments being planned in anticipation of phosphorus windfalls.”
Morocco, for their part, has been denying Western Saharan independence with growing vigor. In February of this year, Morocco’s Minister of Communication announced a program to train Moroccan youth to defend the government stance on Western Sahara through social media. Leaked diplomatic cables suggest increased concern over the international perception of Morocco’s claim to the land. The Polisario, meanwhile, have stated that they are ready to raise arms, once again, over Western Sahara.
The future of the region, the actual distribution of the world’s phosphate reserves, and the market forces driving the commodity’s future are full of uncertainty. The one thing that is certain is mentioned in a footnote in the USGS mineral resources report: “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture.”
BEERSHEBA, Israel—The phosphate industry here last year wiped out a $30‐million deficit in nine months and began pilling up profits, thanks to an Arab monarch.
The Israelis in mid‐1973 had considered closing the Negev quarries because of its losses over 20 years, but overnight it turned into a viable enterprise when King Hassan of Morocco, who is to phosphates as King Faisal is to oil, unilaterally increased the F.O.B. price of this commodity from $15 a ton to $40 and later to $60 a ton.
The Israelis grossed some $50‐million last year by exporting, 900,000 tons to fertilizer plants throughout the world.
The Dead Sea chemical industries also expanded to ease the world’s growing demand for fertilizers and fumigants. Potash [potassium Chloride] fetched $50‐million and bromine $15‐million.
European buyers took about half the output, and the rest went to North and South America and to some African and Far Eastern countries. Some of the customers have never recognized Israel politically.
The earnings were precious to an economy plagued by a constantly deepening trade deficit.
Curiously the Government had promoted the Negev industries for political rather than economic considerations. The purpose had been to exploit mineral resources to create a labor market that would populate new cities it the semidesert and to consolidate Israel’s hold in the area.
The phosphates discovered In Oron in the nineteen‐fifties were of dubious quality with a high chlorine content. The world market price hardly covered the cost of quarrying, washing out the chlorine, upgrading the rock to minimum international standards and shipping it to the port.
The accumulated losses reached £90‐million in Israel currency, the equivalent of $30‐million at the current exchange rate, following a 43 per cent devaluation but much more when reckoned at the rates prevailing at the time. But the enterprise indeed provided livelihoods for many immigrant settlers, and thus was maintained.
Production last year was one‐million tons of which 90 per cent was exported and the rest supplied to a Haifa plant to produce fertilizer for domestic agriculture. The Israelis are now investing $85‐million to exploit a new deposit in the wilderness of Zin, which is calculated to triple output by 1977. The railway line is being extended from Oron to Zin.
Bromine production will also be tripled in three years and reach 60,000 tons. This will make the Dead Sea enterprise the largest single bromine plant in the world, according to Shlomo Drori, an executive of the company. Like potash, bromine is produced by condensing the highly saline pale green waters of the Dead Sea, the lowest inhabited spot on earth, where year‐round high temperatures and low humidity cause thermal evaporation.
Reserves are unlimited. Bromine remaining Inthe brine after the extraction of potash is more than enough to supply the entire world. The Israeli industry has been handicapped because the chemical is used mainly to increase the octane of gasoline and refineries abroad were reluctant to buy from Israel because of Arab pressures. However, outlets were found among manufacturers of agricultural fumigants, pharmaceutical, medical, photographic and fireproofing supplies.
Some 60 per cent of the output of the enlarged plant will be converted into bromine compounds in a plant near here. The expansion is expected to increase annual exports to $50‐million by 1977. A plant to produce chlorine, which is required for the production of bromine, is rising by the Dead Sea.
Potash production last year reached one million tons Plans call for increasing it to 1.5‐million by 1975, but the possibility of further expansion is practically exhausted. The plant’s area is hemmed in between the rocky Arava Hills and the Jordan border, leaving no room for additional evaporation pans.
General Mordechai Makleff, managing director of Israel Chemicals, Ltd., Governmentowned organization, has proposed cooperation with the Jordanians, who have been unable to start their own plant on the Eastern shore. He suggested to World Bank officials that the Jordanians share Israel’s facilities, which would cost a prohibitive. $200‐million to duplicate at today’s prices.
Cooperation would be an obvious boon to the Jordanians, who are heavily dependent on Arab and American financial Support, but the Amman Government has not responded. General. Makleff acknowledged that there was no prospect of acceptance at this time.
The Israelis are now planning to expand chemical production by setting up new plants, although their first such effort with Allied Chemical, Inc., of the United States failed.
The Government lost $75‐million in an attempt to produce phosphoric acid by attacking phosphates with hydrocholoric acid. The process worked in the laboratory, but was not commercially feasible, and the case in now in the courts.
General Makleff has now asked the Government to approve a $100‐million investment in a complex where rock phosphate, potash and nitrogen will be combined to produce compound fertilizers and feed additives.
Israel is in a favorable position because the phosphate mines and the DeadSea works are only 25 miles apart. Nitrogen is produced in Haifa.
Abstract: Being of crucial importance for agricultural production and also having experienced significant price volatility, phosphate and its future availability have drawn growing attention from both academics and the public over the last years. This paper overviews the recent literature and data on the availability of phosphorus and discusses the economic aspects of phosphate scarcity by describing major price determinants of the global phosphate market. We show that past price fluctuations of phosphate rock and phosphate fertilizers are not a reflection of physical phosphate rock depletion but rather attributable to numerous other demand- and supply-side factors. Given the current reserve estimates for phosphate rock, neither an exhaustion of global reserves nor a peak event is likely to occur within this century. However, these estimates are subject to a significant degree of uncertainty. Moreover, the global distribution of phosphate production and reserves is highly skewed and has the potential to pose a threat to food security in developing countries through factors such as the volatility of the phosphate rock price or price setting by suppliers with significant market power.
2008 – Phosphates: Morocco and Libya are planning to build 3 plants in common
(FUCK OFF GADDAFFI!)
Morocco and Libya have decide to conduct a study on the possibility to build three plants worth USD 1.0 billion for products containing phosphates, it was reported by MAP agency. The study concerns the building of plants for the production of phosphoric acid (USD 350 million), ammonia (USD 500 million) and fertilisers (USD 150 million). A memorandum of understanding was signed yesterday in Jorf Lasfar (200 km south-west of Rabat), between the Moroccan Agency for the management of phosphates (OCP) and the company Libya Africa Investment (LAI) – one of the biggest in terms of amount of investments in Africa – with the presence of king Mohammed VI of Morocco. The document was signed by Mustapha Terrab, president and general manager of OCP, and by Bashir Saleh Bashir, president and general manager of LAI. The production units of phosphoric acid and ammonia will be built in Jorf Lasfar, a big industrial complex for the production of derivates from phosphates located on the Atlantic coast – at some 100 km south of Casablanca, economic capital of the kingdom – while those producing fertilisers will be built in Libya or in Morocco. It was envisaged that the three plants will have a production capacity of 1.0 million tonnes of phosphoric acid, 800,000 tonnes of ammonia and 1.0 million tonnes of fertilisers. In 2007, the Moroccan exports of phosphates generated a revenue of USD 2.8 billion, OCP said. Morocco is the third producer of phosphates, after the USA and China, and is the first exporter, detaining 70% of the world reserves.
Phosphate has been essential to feeding the world since the Green Revolution, but its excessive use as a fertilizer has led to widespread pollution and eutrophication. Now, many of the world’s remaining reserves are starting to be depleted.
If you wanted to really mess with the world’s food production, a good place to start would be Bou Craa, located in the desert miles from anywhere in the Western Sahara. They don’t grow much here, but Bou Craa is a mine containing one of the world’s largest reserves of phosphate rock. Most of us, most days, will eat some food grown on fields fertilized by phosphate rock from this mine. And there is no substitute.
The Western Sahara is an occupied territory. In 1976, when Spanish colonialists left, its neighbor Morocco invaded, and has held it ever since. Most observers believe the vast phosphate deposits were the major reason that Morocco took an interest. Whatever the truth, the Polisario Front, a rebel movement the UN recognizes as the rightful representatives of the territory, would like it back.
Not many people would call phosphate a critical issue or one with serious environmental consequences. But even leaving aside the resource politics of the Sahara, it is an absolutely vital resource for feeding the world. It is also a resource that could start running low within a couple of decades — and one we grossly misuse, pouring it across the planet and recycling virtually none of it.
The world’s food supplies are alarmingly dependent on the phosphate fertilizer that is hewn from the desert of the Western Sahara. The vast open-cast mine at Bou Craa delivers several million tons of phosphate rock every year down a 150-kilometer-long conveyor belt, the world’s longest, to the Atlantic port of El Ayoun. From there, it is distributed around the world and made into fertilizer.
Morocco’s phosphate reserves are owned by the Office Cherifien des Phosphates, a Moroccan state agency. Given the almost unlimited executive powers of the Moroccan monarch, it might reasonably be said that most of the world’s known reserves of phosphate are, in effect, owned by King Mohammed VI and his Alaouite dynasty, which has reigned in Morocco since the 17th century.
If the people of Western Sahara ever resume their war to get their country back — or if the Arab Spring spreads and Morocco goes the way of Libya — then we may be adding phosphate fertilizer to the list of finite resources, such as water and land, that are constraining world food supplies sooner than we think.
Phosphorus is one of the building blocks of all life. Every living cell requires it. Plants need phosphorus to grow as much as they need water. Many soils do not have enough to meet the voracious demands for phosphorus of the high-yielding crop varieties of the Green Revolution. But we can provide more by mining phosphate rock and turning it into fertilizer to spread on the land.
It takes one ton of phosphate to produce every 130 tons of grain, which is why the world mines about 170 million tons of phosphate rock every year to ship around the world and keep soils fertile.
Most of the world’s best phosphate reserves are gone, and those that remain are in just a handful of countries.
Currently, only about 15 percent of that comes from mines in the Western Sahara and Morocco. But the only other large producers, the U. S. and China, mostly keep supplies for their own use. So Morocco is by far the biggest contributor to international trade, with more than half the total business. The people of India, the world’s largest importer, would be starving without Morocco’s phosphates. Brazil’s agricultural boom would never have happened otherwise.
Even more critically in the longer term, the U.S. Geological Survey says that of the 65 billion tons of the world’s known phosphate rock reserves — and the estimated 16 billion tons that might be economic to mine — almost 80 percent is in Western Sahara and Morocco. Add in China’s reserves, and the figure rises to almost 90 percent. The U.S., with 1.4 billion tons, is close to running out. You can see why agronomists are starting to get worried.
The world is not about to run out of phosphate. But demand is rising, most of the best reserves are gone, and those that remain are in just a handful of countries. Dana Cordell of Linkoping University in Sweden, who runs an academic group called the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, says we could hit “peak phosphorus” production by around 2030.
As domestic production wanes, the U.S. is starting to join those countries — most of the world, in fact — that import phosphate from Morocco and the Western Sahara. American imports cross the Atlantic courtesy of Potash Corp, the Canada-based fertilizer company whose hostile takeover bid by the Australian mining giant BHP Billiton was blocked by the Canadian government last year. And phosphate mining in Florida, which is home to the world’s largest phosphate mine, is being challenged by environmentalists concerned about its impact on waterways and drinking water supplies.
Already, like other key commodities with once-dominant sources running low, the price of phosphate is starting to yo-yo alarmingly. Prices spiked at an 800-percent increase in 2008.
A century ago, much of the world’s internationally traded phosphate came from bones (a major English import at one time) and guano, excavated from Pacific islands where birds had been defecating phosphate for millions of years. But bones are not traded much any more, and most of the guano islands are now mined out. The island state of Nauru, for instance, is nothing more than a moonscape after decades of mining it to fertilize the grain fields of Australia.
The other key ingredient needed to fertilize modern high-productivity farm soils is nitrogen. We know how to “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere. If the German chemist Fritz Haber hadn’t come up with his process in 1908, there wouldn’t have been a Green Revolution — and there wouldn’t be 7 billion people on the planet today. The nitrogen produced by this process is estimated to be directly responsible for feeding 3 billion of us.
But there are no new sources of phosphate. We continue to mine the rock — or we starve.
Can we find ways to recycle phosphate and keep it in the food chain where we need it?
Phosphate strip mines are environment wreckers. They produce around 150 million tons of toxic spoil a year. Their massive draglines, huge slurry pipes, and mountainous spoil heaps dominate the landscape for tens of miles in key mining zones, whether in the North African desert or in Florida, a state that still provides three-quarters of American farmers’ phosphate needs.
The world’s largest mine is at Four Corners in an area known as Bone Valley in central Florida. The Four Corners mine covers 58,000 acres, an area five times the size of Manhattan. It is owned by Mosaic, a company recently spun off from agribusiness giant Cargill. Next door is the world’s second-largest mine, South Fort Meade. But South Fort Meade is living on borrowed time — its expansion plans are being opposed by local groups, and unless it can expand, the mine will have to close.
As the drag mines move south in Florida, anger has been growing about the environmental impacts. A million tons of mine waste, containing lows levels of radioactivity, are already piled up at dump sites around the state, and disputes are growing over promised mine cleanups. Rivers have dried up, and settling ponds have leaked.
Last year, the local chapter of the Sierra Club went to court to block Mosaic’s plans to extend the life of the South Fort Meade mine by expanding its footprint. The group is concerned about the fate of the Peace River, a vital source of Florida’s drinking water; it says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave approval for the expansion without first conducting a full environmental audit. The case is unresolved to date.
As for the impending shortages of phosphate, will technological advances and market forces solve the problem? We certainly waste a lot of this most valuable resource. Globally, we allow some 37 million tons of phosphorus to spill into the environment each year. It mostly flows down sewers and agricultural drains into rivers and lakes, where it feeds the growth of toxic cyanobacteria and consumes oxygen, creating eutrophication and “dead zones.”
While nitrogen pollution tends to get top billing as a cause of eutrophication, cyanobacteria can often abstract nitrogen from the air. David Schindler, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and others have argued that limiting phosphorus pollution is the key to eliminating eutrophication.
So how can we stop phosphate pollution, recycle it, and keep it in the food chain where we need it? Composting crop residues would be a good way of recycling this valued nutrient back into the soil, cutting the need for new applications of fertilizer — so would capturing some of the 3 million tons of phosphorus that cycles through human bodies annually, after being consumed in our food. Cordell says we should give top priority to recycling our urine, which contains more than half of all the phosphorus that we excrete.
But another conventional technical fix for a resource in short supply — finding a substitute — is not available. Presently, there simply are no substitutes for phosphorus.
Isil strikes at heart of Syrian economy with gains in oil, gas and mining following capture of Palmyra and further gains deeper into the province
The capture of two phosphate mines outside of Palmyra by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has dealt a major blow to the Syrian regime, putting an end to one of its “last” chief sources of income.
The Story of Phosphorus:
7 reasons why we need to transform phosphorus use in the global food system
Dr Dana Cordell, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Australia
Read the full article: Life’s Bottleneck: Sustaining the World’s Phosphorus for a Food Secure Future
By Ryan Sim
August 10, 2016
Phosphorus: a powdery maroon substance used in producing everything from baking powder to steels to fertilizer. Surprisingly, stocks of phosphorus are declining. The international community faces so many insidious issues that phosphorus scarcity can seem trivial; however, dwindling phosphorus is indeed important to national security. One of the most important substances for global food production, phosphorus is crucial to sustainable population growth. Its scarcity must be addressed by the international community.
Used in many fertilizers, phosphorus enables higher food production from crops, which is important for feeding a rapidly growing world. Phosphorus has contributed to a global surplus of food that has fed millions. Unfortunately, phosphorus, like many other important resources such as water or energy, is limited. There is no replacement for phosphorus, and without its role in fertilizer, millions will go hungry.
Numerous global trends have caused the demand for phosphorus to increase at an unsustainable rate. Especially in developing regions, rapid population growth has led to increased phosphorus demand, with the rate of fertilizer including phosphorus increasing by over 600 percent from 1950 to 2000. In developed regions, on the other hand, the shift towards a diet of meat and cheese have also increased phosphorus demand, since meat and dairy contain a significant proportion of phosphorus. As a result, countries everywhere face rising demands for phosphorus, which has led to precarious markets.
Recently unfolding events have demonstrated the impacts of phosphorus’ increased demand. In 2008, world food prices skyrocketed, leading to the 2008 global food crisis. While there were many explanations for this phenomenon, ranging from oil price volatility to economic tariffs, the fact that there was a simultaneous rise of in phosphate prices did not go unnoticed. Though at first many were skeptical of a correlation, the international scientific community has strongly supported the relationship between these two trends.
In such scarcity, phosphorus especially impacts farmers from poor regions like India and landlocked regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. In poor regions, farmers are vulnerable to extreme price changes such as the recent phosphorus price crisis in 2008. In fact, in places such as India and Haiti, many farmers committed suicide while others rioted due to their disrupted livelihoods from the 2008 phosphorus price crisis. In landlocked regions, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, expensive transport as well as government corruption add significantly to phosphorus prices. It is unfortunate, since many of these countries rely upon agriculture for economic growth, further increasing their reliance on phosphate. Many of these countries are also undergoing rapid population growth, which cannot be sustained by such high phosphorus prices.
Though demand is increasing, phosphorus is an extremely rare resource and its supply may not be able to keep up. Phosphate rock is the difficult to extract and slow-forming product of millions of years, much like oil, and cannot be produced artificially. To make matters worse, phosphorus cannot be replaced by any known alternatives. It is uncertain exactly how much time that the international community has before phosphate runs out. However, as phosphate is continuously and increasingly harvested, the ability to easily harvest high-quality phosphorus is reduced. This is a phenomenon known as “peak phosphorus”, since at a certain point of time, phosphorus quality peaks and then is difficult to harvest afterwards. Even now, it takes enormous amounts of energy to obtain the same amounts of phosphate as before. Since phosphorus has a limited and quickly depleting availability and it saps precious energy, more sustainable and efficient methods of phosphorus harvest must be implemented.
It must also be noted how phosphorus can only be found in very specific locations, namely, Morocco, China, Algeria, and South Africa among a few others. As is the case with most resources of significance, when certain countries have a monopoly, it gives them major geopolitical power over other countries who need those imports. For example, the 2008 phosphorus price crisis was spurred in part due to China placing limits on phosphorus exports. This event demonstrates how countries are at the mercy of those who hold such a monopoly and, consequently, the balance of power has significantly been slanted towards them.
Though demand is increasing, phosphorus is an extremely rare resource and its supply may not be able to keep up.
In countries such as Morocco, for instance, phosphorus lies in the Western Sahara, an area that Morocco claims to own; the international community refuses to acknowledge this territorial claim. Regardless of the legitimacy of the Moroccan claim, numerous companies import phosphate rock from this contested area, much to the dismay of neighboring countries. Moreover, the people who occupy the Western Sahara protest against the phosphorus extraction, stating that it violates their sovereignty. Though this may be a singular case, it demonstrates how the extreme need for phosphorus combined with little regulation has created an environment where illegal activity may flourish. Furthermore, the lack of regulation allows more opportunistic powers to enter weaker territories and take their resources, instigating oppression and deeper economic woes.
Phosphorus’ scarcity stems not only from its limited quantities, but it is also wasted during harvests. As much as four-fifths of phosphorus is wasted during production, from the moment it is mined to the final moments of processing. These losses can be minimized through greater efficiency and recycling waste, ensuring more sustainable levels of phosphorus use. Moreover, improving the efficiency of phosphorus extraction reduces phosphorus runoff into streams and oceans, which causes algal blooms that kill aquatic wildlife and hurt tourist industries and the environment. This algal bloom is costly, as well. The estimated annual cost in the United States alone reaches up to as high as $2.2 billion USD. More stringent monitoring of excess phosphorus waste during harvest will decrease phosphorus scarcity and environmental risks.
This raises the question–who is responsible for managing phosphorus, whether by following international norms or minimizing excessive waste? The answer, at the moment, is lost in a hectic mass of mining sectors, national governments, and agricultural industries. The trade and production data that exists on phosphorus is incomplete; indeed, the only data available is from the US Geological Survey, but even this data lacks outside verification from other organizations or countries. This is a clear and present problem, especially given that phosphorus is such a critical resource for future food sustainability. All lines involved in the production of phosphorus need to be held to more accountability, and more information regarding the phosphorus production process needs to be revealed to give a better picture of the status quo.
Luckily for the international community, the future is not as grim as it appears. There are a number of institutional changes that can be made to improve regulation and decrease waste. Outreach and advocacy measures, on the macro-level of the United Nations and giant media organizations as well as micro-level of grassroots movements and nonprofit organizations, can raise awareness of the seriousness of phosphorus. As these reforms and changes change the nature of institutions to become more sympathetic to phosphorus sustainability, the best practices and procedures of the international community can be more easily implemented.
One area that should be prioritized in reducing phosphorus is the smarter use of fertilizer. In most cases, farmers are unaware of how much fertilizer they need. For good reason—the amount of fertilizer a farmer may need is highly dependent on environmental conditions such as soil, temperature, and weather patterns. As a result, many farmers in developing countries are not able to accurately gauge their fertilizer requirements, leading to much waste. One example of this case can be found in a China Agriculture Survey on northern Chinese farmers. Since many of these farmers were never taught how much fertilizer they need, they tend to use about half of the fertilizer they put down. Thus, a valuable resource is wasted and becomes an environmental risk to water supplies, just because some people were never educated.
To combat this lack of information, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is putting together a task force to work together with local and state governments. It hopes to provide accessible information to farmers, emphasizing ideals of conservation and long-term sustainability of phosphorus. This task force is not unprecedented and draws inspiration from past successful initiatives. The University of Wisconsin, in concert with the Wisconsin government, put together a program called the Wisconsin phosphorus index, which helps farmers accurately predict how much phosphorus that they will need. By promoting past sustainable practices that have a track record of success, organizations like the United Nations will hopefully be able to increase awareness amongst local communities.
Another area that can be examined to increase phosphorus supply is recycling waste. In the past, farmers were able to sustain the quality of their soil largely through household waste. Even though animal manure is still widely used, human waste is also a valuable source of phosphorus. Instead of disposing of it as sewage, human waste has potential as an alternative fertilizer. Moreover, many countries across the world are undergoing intensive research to find innovative ways to efficiently recycle waste. It is important that the international scientific community communicates their findings to one another to promote the best long-term phosphorus recycling methods. Additionally, areas that might not be able to afford such advanced levels of technology need to receive assistance from NGOs and the United Nations. Since some of these recycling procedures are difficult to keep up without high development levels, countries must have access to at least rudimentary recycling processes. In this way, countries will be able to extend their current supplies of phosphorus.
Just as important in preserving phosphorus in the long term is having a tangible idea of the global phosphorus supply. As previously mentioned, the US Geological Survey currently gives us the best representation of how much phosphorus is left. However, a more effective way to describe the world phosphorus supply would be through an international organization such as the World Trade Organization. The World Trade Organization should work together with governments to foster the creation of a more comprehensive global database of phosphorus trade and supply. Indeed, this partnership should also yield information of new phosphorus mining areas, since many places need heavier examination by regional governments. Then, markets and research institutions will have more accurate information to act upon, creating a more sustainable phosphorus supply in the long run.
While there are numerous measures that can be implemented in order to promote more long-term phosphorus supply sustainability, they cannot be effective without cultural changes as well. Meat and dairy, for example, take up immense supplies of phosphorus, and yet people are consuming these products at unprecedented levels. Therefore, it is increasingly necessary to promote a plant-based diet to reduce the amount of phosphorus consumption. Other cultural changes can include speaking with local farmers in underdeveloped countries, explaining how phosphorus is an essential and limited resource that needs conservation. With these movements in place, major media outlets and nonprofit organizations should direct the focus of public energy. Of course, this will not be an overnight process, since cultural changes often take many more incremental, subtle steps. However, encouraging such a long-term paradigm shift while putting into place other specific strategies for improvement should maintain phosphorus supplies.
The world’s population is growing at an exponential rate, as technology has dramatically improved the standard of living. On the whole, more people have access to the necessary resources they need to live than ever before. Yet, there are still large swaths of populations who live in poor conditions. There is still work to be done in lifting every person to the basic standard of living that they each deserve. Phosphorus is not a silver bullet that will deliver such people. However, when phosphorus sustainability is considered in the grander scheme of things, it will have enormous benefits to everyone, regardless of where they live. It will improve international security, as those who have more access to phosphorus will not have such a monopoly on power. It will reap benefits for farmers who are able to support their livelihoods through affordable fertilization. And it will reap benefits for every individual, as the markets of phosphorus and agriculture become more stable over time.
Phosphorus is more than simply an element or powdery substance—it represents an opportunity for the international community to help itself and the most marginalized populations. In a vastly changing world, it has become an essential element for change.