It doesn’t matter whether The Godfather Kissinger said it or not… I’m fucking saying it! 😀
“You control the food, you control the people” – Danny Hurley
… you control whether they live or die! You control entire populations, the fate of entire continents…
Phosphates… P Money! 🙂
This vital and finite little mineral resource (along with water) is what world war three will be waged over.
This is the reason why introducing a clean, cheap and inexhaustible, off-grid energy source (I.e. hydrino) to the world, and to the developing nations, may not be such a good idea… the global human population may not be able to handle that amount of power… the potential unforeseen consequences in other areas of ecology and mineral extraction, the potential unforeseen population boom… ?
Don’t you worry about Israel regarding this one… trust me! 😀
(The Russians knew exactly what to say to me, and exactly how to approach me regarding this one!) 😉
Both nitrogen and phosphorous are essential to life. Lynchpins both to global food production, circulating through synthesis or export and then through croplands and food into — and out of — our bodies, both elements today inhabit cycles that, in their own ways, function more in the breach.
Phosphorous is a scarce resource. As ARNO ROSEMARIN tells us, it is the focus of intense geopolitical interest. At the centre of this interest: internecine conflict in Africa, and a global rush for Western Sahara’s reserves.
Nitrogen is a resource in plenty. But, as T V JAYAN shows, that isn’t helping. Indeed, the world today faces a nitrogen deluge. That’s because a lot of it exists in the form of waste. And that’s because the cycle has been broken. Now, nitrogen-bearing waste goes not back to the land but into water.
Is it possible not to be at war with these two elements?
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015
The precarious geopolitics of phosphorous
It is therefore of interest to take a more in-depth look at other natural resources, which are limited in supply and which have a highly skewed geographical distribution. The case in point is the global supply of phosphorous, a non-renewable but essential nutrient for all forms of life. Phosphorous is about 10 times more abundant in living organisms than what is found in the earth’s crust, thus demanding a “luxury” consumption mechanism. Phosphate rock is mined to produce phosphoric acid and elemental phosphorous. Sulphuric acid is reacted with phosphate rock to produce the fertiliser triple superphosphate, or with anhydrous ammonia to produce ammonium phosphate fertilisers. Elemental phosphorous is the base for furnace-grade phosphoric acid, phosphorous pentasulfide, phosphorous pentoxide, and phosphorous trichloride. Approximately 90 per cent of phosphate rock is used for fertilisers and animal feed supplements and the rest for industrial chemicals . Urbanisation and intensive agricultural practices have brought about the application of chemical fertilisers in order to produce adequate amounts of food. But we have neglected to close the nutrient cycle, and have instead chosen to exploit phosphorous and other important minerals without ecological controls (see flow chart: Tracking phosphorous). This has left us in a situation where little phosphorous is recycled either within populated areas or from agricultural land. Excess runoff and discharge of phosphorous in surface waters have resulted in eutrophication and algal overgrowth, which creates oxygen-poor conditions, reduces water quality and damages ecosystems. This approach to resource use has also made us highly dependent on expansive extraction of limited supplies.
About one billion metric tonnes of phosphorous were mined between 1950 and 2000. During this period, about 800 million metric tonnes (one megatonne=one million metric tonnes) of phosphorous-containing fertilisers were applied to the Earth’s croplands. This has increased the standing stock of phosphorous in the upper 10 centimetres of soil in the world’s croplands to roughly 1,300 million metric tonnes, an increase of 30 per cent. Close to a quarter of the mined phosphorous (250 million tonnes) since 1950 has found its way to the aquatic environment (oceans and fresh water lakes) or buried in sanitary landfills or ‘sinks’. Of the next billion tonnes of phosphorous we mine between 2000 and 2050, a significant percentage can be recovered by using sustainable agriculture and sanitation. This should be a priority for the global policy agenda.
Many countries have trade pacts and joint ventures with Morocco for mining, extracting and shipping phosphorous. Morocco earned US $1.5 billion from phosphate exports in 2001. The Office Cherifien des Phosphates (OCP), a state-owned group which controls the phosphate industry in Morocco, contributes 2.6 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product and 18.5 per cent to its exports. The Moroccan monarchy is the major shareholder in Omnium Nord Africain (OND), the country’s largest private company, which controls the resources, including phosphorous.
Phosphorous politics became even more complex in 2003 when China revealed to the world that it, too, had large phosphate reserves, about the same size as Morocco’s. This news has gone almost completely ignored, but may be one of the most important developments that will determine phosphorous geopolitics. China and Morocco together hold about 70 per of the world’s economic reserves for phosphate rock, estimates the USGS. But China appears to be holding on to its phosphate reserves for domestic consumption: according to the USGS its export share is less than 15 per cent of the reported production. China in 2002 imported 30 per cent of its phosphate requirements. The European Union, followed by the US, India, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil are the top importers of phosphate rock from Morocco, says USGS.
Morocco in March 2, 2004 signed a free-trade agreement with the US. Issues that were hindering this agreement up to now within Morocco were related to food import controls (imports of subsidised wheat from the US will overtake domestic growers) and lack of free enterprise surrounding the phosphorous industry. Increased military aid from the US, an attempt to split Arab country alliances, is also part of this development. USA’s phosphate imports come from Morocco/Western Sahara, and this dependency will increase over the next few decades.
What does this all say then? It doesn’t require very much analysis to realise that the geopolitical agenda for control of phosphorous is well advanced. But what is alarming is the little concern being shown by the world at large. How can leaders of the world dwell in this state of ignorance?
India’s position: Tied to the world
In this great game for getting phosphorous, India is desperate. After France and Spain, it is the biggest importer of phosphate and phosphoric acid. It is one of Morocco’s most important trading partners and has signed several joint ventures with it. An Indian company invested about US $230 million in 1998 for a phosphoric acid plant in Morocco. India has 260 megatonnes of low-grade phosphate rock deposits, but they are unsuitable for fertiliser production. Its position is similar to many other countries.
Global population increase and the striving to increase the standard of living in many developing parts of the world will further aggravate the task of managing this limited resource. At the current extraction rate of 138 megatonnes per year, commercially viable phosphorous reserves will last 130 years. If one includes commercially unviable reserves, we can go on for another 130 years but at much higher prices. The demand for phosphate rock as a nutrient for food production will vary throughout the world. The overall demand is forecasted to increase by 1 to 2 per cent. In agriculturally mature countries, the increase in demand will be closer to 1 per cent per year. At an increased rate of 3 per cent, the world’s commercially viable reserves would be depleted by 2060.
But presently, the real concern should be the highly skewed distribution of phosphate reserves compared to where the needs are in the world. India, Western Europe and many other countries depend entirely on foreign sources. USA’s commercially viable reserves are running out. Canada’s wheat belt is totally dependent on phosphate from Togo at present.
As reserves dwindle, food security will become the central issue in all countries. Daily protein intake in Asia in 1996, when the population was 3.3 billion, was about 15 gm per individual. Estimates for 2030 are a population of about 4.5 billion and a four-fold increase in protein intake, mainly as meat. This amounts to over a five-fold increase in meat consumption over 35 years. The ensuing increase in fertiliser to support this massive population growth will surely bring the question of limited phosphorous into focus. That USA’s commercially viable reserves will be depleted by then, and that the geopolitical volatility around the world will only increase, make further the case for phosphorous limitations. By 2020, rock phosphorite may become the keystone resource of the world economy.
As the world becomes more aware of the need to save and recycle phosphorous, certain characteristics of this mineral will unfortunately aggravate this response. Phosphate once applied to soil is not easily recycled. When applied as chemical fertiliser, phosphate transforms to less available forms (for example, from highly available dicalcium-P to less available octo-calcium-P). These forms then remain bound to the upper soil layer and can’t be used by plants.
Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation is trying to extract phosphorous using white lupine (Lupinus albus), a grain legume used for nitrogen fixation but which also excretes small amounts of organic acid from its rootlets. There will be attempts to gene-modify soil bacteria and plants in order to achieve higher phosphorous recovery. But even if biotechnology helps, it cannot give us abundant phosphate.
Slash-and-burn methods won’t help either — they will affect crop cycles and could start millions of small fires around the world resulting in release of carbon dioxide and particulate matter. Recycling from sanitation and solid waste systems can be a partial remedy. The phosphorous we consume in foodstuffs or add to our laundry in the form of water softeners can be recycled, but our mixed and diluted solid waste and sewage systems make this very costly. Radical changes to these systems in terms of source-separation and containment (ecological sanitation) will be needed in order to make recycling economically viable.
The present attitudes around fertiliser use within the agricultural sector were formed during the “Green Revolution” whereby nutrients were given the status of being limitless. As the population of the world has increased, energy resource questions have kept the fertiliser debate from developing. And more recently the recognition that water resources and soil are the largest present-day limiting factors in agriculture have further delayed any attention paid toward limiting nutrients and the need for their more frugal management.
Whether the world reserves of cheap phosphorous become depleted in 100 years or even 200 years is a minor question when compared to the present situation regarding the heavily skewed global distribution. The geopolitics of phosphorous makes this one of the most precarious global resource questions requiring immediate attention.
Arno Rosemarin is communication director and senior researcher at Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden.
Little is published on the risks and limitations of global supply and demand of phosphorus. □ But after reviewing the available data there is cause for …
The impact of mineral, fossil and agricultural assets as a weapon in international politics will gradually become smaller, we concluded in three articles. Substitution of critical materials and the development of new technologies play a crucial role in this process. But the geopolitics of phosphate might be an exception. For there is no alternative to phosphate as a resource for agriculture. Therefore it is essential to the biobased economy as well. On the other hand, with smart recycling we might use phosphate again and again.
This is the fourth in a series of five articles on the geopolitics of fossil, mineral and agricultural resources. The articles were published on 28 October, 4 November, 16 November, 26 November and 20 December 2017.
A continuous supply of phosphate is essential to agriculture. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Phosphorus is an essential element for life’s processes. It is part of our DNA, it is an ingredient of bone, and it is indispensable in the energy transfer process in living cells. Animals get their phosphorus from eating plants, whereas plants take up phosphorus in the form of phosphate from soil or water; phosphate also being the most abundant source for the element phosphorus. All soils, rivers, lakes and oceans contain a certain amount of phosphate, enough to sustain life. But in commercial agriculture, a constant supply of phosphate is essential. Unlike nitrate, that other major ingredient of fertilizer, phosphate cannot be synthesized from abundant elements like oxygen and nitrogen. It needs either to be recycled (for instance through use of manure) or mined from phosphate rock. Modern agriculture requires increasing amounts of phosphate fertilizer; and as recycling levels are low, the world uses vast amounts of phosphate rock. This puts countries with rich reserves in a strong position in the geopolitics of phosphate.
And the next global superpower is… Morocco
Just five countries host 90% of global high-grade phosphate rock. The three most important ones are Morocco, China and the US, in that order. By far the largest deposits are in the very sparsely populated former Spanish Sahara. The Polisario front waged a freedom war against Spain, until the area was occupied by Morocco in 1976. And although the UN has voiced its opposition against this occupation ever since, it has proved toothless in this conflict; and therefore Morocco will never abandon this area with its riches. As phosphate will become more important over the next few decades, we will also see Morocco’s position rise in the international balance of power. Geopolitics of phosphate has already been played out in 2008-2009, when prices of all minerals skyrocketed and there was a general fear of shortages. In 2008 China imposed a 135% export tariff to secure domestic supply, a move which essentially halted exports from the region overnight, and by 2009 the US and EU had gone to the WTO claiming China was exhibiting anti-competitive behaviour.
Open pit phosphate mining in Togo. Photoi: Wikimedia Commons.
The geopolitics of phosphate even extends to the facts, i.e. to figures about proven and expected reserves. In the same year when China imposed its export tariff, it lowered its figure for proven reserves by 3,000 million tons, quite a lot in a world total of 16,000 million tons. But then, in 2011 Morocco revised its figure for proven reserves from 5,700 million tons to 51,000 million tons, increasing four-fold the estimate of global reserves to 65,000 million tons. There exists well-founded scientific doubt as to the correctness of this move. The revised Moroccan figures for instance, are based on another classification of reserves than the usual one, defined by US Geological Service, where ‘proven reserves’ refer to the amount assumed recoverable at current market prices. Most likely, Morocco just added reserves that would have to be classified as ‘probable’ or even ‘possible’ reserves to its ‘proven’ reserves. As a matter of fact, all countries have their own system of reporting reserves. There is no recognised international body overseeing the estimates of the different classes of reserves, which lends an unusual degree of uncertainty to estimates of phosphate rock reserves.
Global phosphate rock production, 1900–2012, reported by US Geological Survey.
Towards peak phosphate
There is no doubt that phosphate recovery will follow the Hubbert curve, like all minerals. According to M. King Hubbert, the recovery of any finite resource will peak when about 50% has been mined, and then fall, however strong the attempts to successfully mine poorer deposits. This theory has proven to be true for individual oil fields, and has been applied to oil recovery in the US and to global oil recovery in general (‘peak oil’). This implies there will also be a ‘peak phosphate’, but there is considerable dispute over the question when this will happen. Dana Cordell, in her authoritative doctorate thesis puts it before 2035, but then notes that this timeline is contested ‘both by industry, which views as it as being too ‘doom and gloom’, and by some peak oil scientists who propose the peak occurred in 1989 and therefore argue that 2030–2035 is too conservative an estimate.’ Peak phosphate will mean that after that date, demand will outstrip supply, meaning that the geopolitics of phosphate would intensify considerably around the peak. But then, we should also note that such ‘peak’ moments tend to get postponed, as uncertainty of supply and rising prices will give rise to intensified prospecting for new reserves, and new discoveries. This has already happened after the 2008 price rise; there are even serious projects to mine phosphate from the ocean bed, in New Zealand, Namibia and Mexico (Baja California), with a total estimated reserve of 400 million tons.
Geopolitics of phosphate might lose its force because of measures on the demand side
Demand for phosphate is not cast in iron. There are major inefficiencies in the existing phosphate production chain ‘from ore to mouth’ (according to Cordell 80% of the phosphorus mined for food production never reaches the plate). For instance, much fertilizer runs off the land, leaving its content unused and causing eutrophication of waterways. Most phosphate in human excreta is not recovered. According to Prem Bindraban, a professor at Wageningen UR, a phosphor shortage can reasonably be prevented by efficiencies in mining (10% loss reduction), efficiencies in agriculture (20%), efficiencies in the food chain (10%), reuse of manure (15%), reuse of other waste (10%) and changing our diets (10%), allowing a total reduction of 75% of the present level. And in case of emergency, reuse levels might become much higher. That we do not use most human and household animal excreta any more as a fertilizer, is just a result of sloppy organization, stemming from the perception that we could do without them. This is an area where technology might come up with solutions fast, if need should arise.
Supply and environmental issues
If we look more in detail, there is a number of issues that could become important as well. Firstly, the distribution of phosphate fertilizer is mainly organized now along the lines of farmer purchasing power. But most soils with very low phosphate contents are in Africa – these need the application of a lot of fertilizer, whereas their farmers are too poor to buy it. If we should wish to feed Africa, we could start thinking about ways to redress this imbalance. Then, with international shipments of agricultural products (particularly feedstock for animal feed), a lot of phosphorus is shipped with them as well. As the phosphorus is not returned, the soil in Brazil and Thailand is depleted with phosphate, whereas for instance the Netherlands is overflown by it. Furthermore, uses of phosphate outside the food chain might come up. Till this day, some phosphate is used in detergents. And one kind of lithium-ion battery researched today is based on the use of much phosphate, maybe up to 60 kg per battery.
Finally, phosphate mining and use are not without environmental consequences. Mining many phosphate resources also produces a radioactive phosphogypsum by-product which must be stockpiled. Like all open pit mining, the mining process disturbs water tables and pollutes waterways. But the most problematic issue might be contamination by heavy metals. These need to be removed, or else mankind will gradually poison its agricultural land. This may already be the case. In the eighties, Dutch research centre TNO developed a process that would purify phosphate ore from cadmium contaminations, commissioned by the Dutch government. But industry had other things in mind. When government lowered the acceptable dose of cadmium in fertilizer, Dutch industry simply substituted cleaner Florida ore for contaminated ore from Morocco, Togo and Senegal. In short, the purification technology was shelved. West-African ore is now shipped to Egypt, where it contaminates the Nile valley and the delta. Problems like these can only be prevented by international action.
From geopolitics of phosphate to phosphorus security
The geopolitics of phosphate could be resolved by international action, if countries would agree on it. This would require action on many levels, as indicated: better mining and purification processes, precision application of fertilizer, preventing losses in the food chain, better waste and manure recovery, less phosphorus-intense diets. It could lead to what Dana Cordell calls ‘phosphorus security’. ‘Phosphorus security,’ as she defines it, ‘ensures that all the world’s farmers have access to sufficient phosphorus in the short and long term to grow enough food to feed a growing world population, while ensuring farmer livelihoods and minimising detrimental environmental and social impacts.’ Would parties intent on waging the geopolitics of phosphate allow us to reach that level?
The phosphate balance: Current developments and future outlook
Geopolitics and the (In)Security of EU’s Phosphate Imports
Geopolitics and governance of phosphorus
The Story of Phosphorus: 7 reasons why we need to transform phosphorus use in the global food system
Peak Phosphorus: the sequel to Peak Oil
The Story of Phosphorus: Sustainability implications of global phosphorus scarcity for food security
Our bodies require phosphorus to function, but creating a stable and sustainable supply presents big food security challenges
18 November 2015
The story of phosphorus is one of food security, geopolitics, inequality and water pollution. Yet it’s also a story of new opportunities for one of the world’s most critical and strategic resources, writes Dana Cordell.
Most people would be hard pressed to know the link between their daily toilet habits and Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara.
Yet each time you relieve yourself, there’s a good chance the phosphorus in your pee started its life in a phosphate mine in the occupied territory of Western Sahara – the last colony of Africa.
The story of phosphorus is the story of food security, geopolitics, inequality, water pollution, yet also of new opportunities. While phosphorus is one of the world’s most critical and strategic resources, it is also one of the most under-discussed and under-governed. Without phosphorus, we could not produce food. All nations and farmers need access to phosphorus resources for fertilisers to ensure high crop yields. Like water, oxygen or carbon, there is no substitute for phosphorus in food production – or in life itself. Our bodies require phosphorus to function and we obtain this vital element from the food we eat.
However the world relies on one main source – phosphate rock, which is finite and mined in only a few countries. Geopolitical risks associated with the supply concentration of phosphate producers carry great consequences for importing countries and other actors in the food supply-chain. Morocco alone controls three-quarters of the world’s remaining phosphate rock. Together with China, Syria, Algeria, and South Africa, these five countries control 88 per cent of the world’s remaining phosphate. So few producers of a globally critical resource in potentially politically unstable regions creates a serious risk of disruption to supply and price fluctuations.
The 800 per cent spike in phosphate prices in 2008 demonstrated the fragility and vulnerability of the world’s food system to even a temporary disruption in supply. Hundreds of millions of farmers suffered, unable to access fertilisers, reducing crop yields and their family’s livelihoods and pushing millions more over the edge of food insecurity.
Further, Morocco’s control over the contested territory of Western Sahara, including its significant phosphate reserves, creates not only a supply disruption risk, but also a human-rights risk associated with the exploitation and displacement of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara. Recently termed ‘blood phosphates’ – the trade of phosphate from Western Sahara – means not only phosphate companies, but also agri-businesses, farmers and food consumers are, knowingly or unknowingly, supporting a conflict in Western Sahara that is condemned by the UN. By contrast, many of Scandinavia’s largest pension funds and banks have divested from companies involved in this trade.
Further complicating the story, 80 per cent of phosphorus mined specifically for food production is lost or wasted along the supply chain due to inefficient practices. Much of this ends up in the world’s rivers and oceans, where it can and is causing widespread pollution in the form of toxic algal blooms that kill fish and pollute drinking water. This costs fisheries and recreating industries heavily, from China to the Great Barrier Reef to The Great Lakes of North America. The cost of algal blooms is estimated at US$2.2 billion in the US alone. A 2014 algal bloom saw the North American town of Toledo trucking in bottled drinking water from neighbouring states after their water supply was rendered toxic.
So how can such a seemingly intractable global problem be reframed as an opportunity?
The good news is that the simple physical law of mass conservation means all the phosphorus we consume in food, comes out our other end as urine and faeces and is potentially available for reuse. This means, for example, countries, communities and companies can invest in renewable phosphate fertilisers through efficient phosphorus recovery from local wastes (think food and green waste, excreta and manure). Diversifying phosphorus sources away from imports can buffer against a range of geopolitical, environmental and livelihood risks and increase food system resilience by increasing farmer fertiliser access, boosting agricultural productivity and preventing wasted phosphorus being lost to water. It will also extend the longevity of finite phosphate rock reserves for future generations, who, we assume, will also want to eat.
This is just one example: there are over 70 identified possible sustainable phosphorus measures – ranging from technologies to behavioural change interventions in the mining, agricultural, food processing and sanitation sectors that can be brought online to meet future phosphorus demand for food security. Dietary change is another example: by preferencing foods with lower phosphorus-footprints (in addition to climate-friendly and low water footprint foods), global demand for phosphorus could be halved while still meeting the nutritional security of 9 billion people.
Achieving phosphorus security requires effective governance interventions – including appropriate policies and frameworks to stimulate and support such behaviour changes and innovations.
Together, these interventions must ensure farmers have equitable access to phosphorus to produce sufficient food to feed the world, support their family’s livelihoods, while ensuring our rivers and lakes are free from nutrient pollution.
A dispute over Western Sahara’s phosphate reserves could disrupt food production around the globe.Alex Kasprak
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.
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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.
“I’ve been to 70 countries, including Iraq under Saddam and Indonesia under Suharto,” saysStephen 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, saysthat 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.”
Two thirds of a trillion tons of phosphate rock are lying about in the planet’s soil. Easily extracted, stable, cheap, it enables agricultural soils to maintain their fertility. Alex Kasprak writes for The Atlantic that “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.”
So, we’ll have to make do with what there is. Luckily enough, there is plenty. Or is there? The European Union in Brussels is looking into the adoption of a new regulation which would bar effectively 95% of phosphate ore from entering the EU market. Why? Cadmium.
Until the middle of last century, this heavy metal used to be in all sorts of domestic and industrial applications, exposing whoever was near to heavy doses through skin contact, inhalation or ingestion,. Cadmium in small doses is harmless – microscopic doses of just about anything can be found anywhere, if you look hard enough – as with almost all metals.
As for phosphate rock, it comes in two-forms: igneous and sedimentary. Igneous rocks are formed through the cooling of molten rock and contain low amounts of cadmium. Sedimentary rocks form over long periods of accumulation and contain microscopic amounts of cadmium. Both levels of concentration are yet to be proven as harmful, but the Russians assure Brussels that even such tiny amounts of cadmium will wreak havoc on European health.
Who’s still in the game if the Russian lobbying effort comes through?
The European Union would establish a limit of 20mg, over a few years, excluding a large proportion of the world’s phosphate resources out of the EU market. 68 billion tons of phosphate rock reserves have been identified, mapped and assessed in the world. 50 of them are in Morocco.
Then comes China, with 3. Algeria and Syria have 2. South Africa, Russia, Egypt, the United States, Jordan, and Australia have 1. Smaller deposits can be found all over the world. Only Brazil, a handful of African countries, and Finland and Russia possess igneous phosphate deposits.
The Food Administration Organization (FAO) describes: “Igneous deposits have provided about 10-20 percent of world production in the last ten years. They are exploited in the Russian Federation, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Finland and Zimbabwe but also occur in Uganda, Malawi, Sri Lanka and several other locations.”
If Russia pulls it off, it will move from being a minor supplier to the leading position on the EU market, the richer part of Europe. In such a position, it will be able to dictate how much fertilizer EU countries receive, when and at what price. It will get little competition from the other possessors of low-cadmium, which are remote from the EU, have only limited reserves to be able to come even close to meeting the substantial EU demand.
Of course, because cadmium is present only in microscopic proportions in the phosphate rock, one could wonder if this doesn’t amount to missing the forest for the trees. There are laboratory-scale processes which extract the little cadmium that there is in the phosphate, according to the type of rock. But none of them are fit for large-scale exploitation.
Brian Johnson writes for Parliament Magazine: “First, not all phosphate fertilizers can be decadmiated: there is no known technology for nitrophosphates, phosphate rock and Single Super Phosphate (SSP) which represents 30 percent of the EU market. Second, there is a misunderstanding about how new technologies are implemented at industrial levels. Just because technologies exist on paper or in laboratories, does not make them ‘available.’” Additional problems from these potential technologies need to be addressed, including a highly damaging carbon footprint and an environmental impact.
As a result, not only would Russia hold a leading position on the market, but the EU customer countries would have no alternative to which to turn to.
If the regulation comes through, only 5% of the world’s current phosphate rock will be legal in the EU. If EU policymakers walk naively into the Russian trap, the European fertilizer and farming industries will quickly face enormous cost increases, supply disruptions and limited liberty.
Moscow will say “jump,” and the EU agricultural world will ask “how high.” The most recent studies shed much doubt as to whether the considered cadmium limit would bring any benefit to public health. Hence, the necessity for the EU to design a strategy on its own. EU member states have put forward a proposal for a moderate limit of 60mg/kg, a level that would not disrupt current supplies and which would be reviewed in due course, in the light of new scientific evidence, possible developments on decadmiation and the availability of phosphate supplies on the global market. This offers a sensible way forward. Let us hope that Russian manipulation does not succeed in undermining it.
World News /17 Nov 2018Eric Thompson
According to New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, Russians are centimeters away from pulling a big trick on Europe. In order to seize the opportunity of the EU’s crumbling, triggered in part by the Brexit debacle, Moscow is using the European Union against Europe, and playing the Euro MPs’ ignorance on the matters which they rule upon. In today’s tradition of professional politicians, which has become widespread across governments worldwide, Moscow knows that Euro MP’s lack the technical understanding necessary to vote sensibly on matters at hand, and rely on technical advisers to enlighten their choices. Hence the creation of an “environmental technical advisory group.” Matt Apuzzo explains: “The relationship between cadmium in fertilizer, cadmium in soil and cadmium in the human body is far from clear. Scientists cannot say how much cadmium in fertilizer is too much.” And when the road to the truth is unclear, the expressway to theories is open.
The Russian government is backing the largest Russian phosphate producer (PhosAgro) which created a lobbying think tank in Brussels, to persuade parliamentarians to lower the limits with which cadmium traces in phosphate rock, a common agricultural fertilizer, would be deemed acceptable for importation into Europe. The think tank, named Safer Phosphates, is linked to PhosAgro and, though officially being a multi-business representative, answers only to its main funder. By lowering the technical limit on cadmium traces in phosphates, PhosAgro hopes to eliminate all competitors on the global market, namely China, Morocco, and the United States. Andrey Guryev, one of the oligarchs closest to the Kremlin, sees a multi-billion-dollar opportunity, and Moscow supports it, for the immense negotiation power Russia would obtain with the new law. Politico reporter Giulia Paravicini writes: “The elder Guryev is famously private. Though he served as a Russian senator for 11 years — stepping down in 2013 after the Kremlin introduced anti-corruption laws — he has never given a press interview. His son is more open, in part because of his push to promote ‘pure phosphate.’ In an interview in his office in Moscow, Guryev Jr. played down concerns raised in Brussels that strict limits on cadmium would give Phosagro — and thus the Kremlin — too much leverage in Europe.”
Russians are likely to use their favourite strategy: ruse. Therefore, the Russian strategy is based on influencing MPs with scary words and scenarios and counting on the fact that they have little to no command of the matter at hand. In this case, no reliable scientific study has established any link whatsoever between cadmium traces contained in phosphate and public health disorders.
If the bill is passed, Russia will be the only supplier of phosphate rock for Europe, and lorries will carry millions of tons of fertilizer westward, and then drive billions of euros back to the motherland. Moreover, European farmers would become more dependent on PhosAgro, which will be able to dictate its prices, and of the Russian government which will withhold replenishments if the EU does not comply with its wishes. Be it financial or diplomatic, European farmers will be under great risk of having simply no other option but to ask how high, when the Russians say “jump.” Finally, to make matters even riskier, European farmers would suffer most of the consequences, for the actions of the European Union, and the ensuing Russian retaliations, while having little or no grip on their MPs.
NGO Global House Ross Gray writes: “In their grabs for power and position, professional politicians have done more than let us down; they have perpetuated an unrepresentative and rigged system. They have become the problem!” Given that there is no sign that the trend is about to change, Russia should find many more opportunities to fool disconnected politicians into their tricks.
Few of us who voted for or against Brexit had considered the fertilizer market as a strategic question, or even a dangerously slippery slope yet phosphate is indeed on the European list of critical raw materials.. But with many of the members of Parliament being professional politicians, the governing body of Europe is completely exposed to influence, from within and abroad. With lack of culture on the specific matters which they are meant to handle, EU MPs are bound, no matter how immune to corruption they may be, to be easily tricked by lobby-steered technicians.
Friday August 3rd, 2018 by Al-Modon (Lebanese news website)
Russia is playing an active role in Syria’s phosphate market, but its intentions are not clear writes Al-Modon
Russia has monopolized Syrian phosphate production, through the company Stroytransgaz, with a 50-year contract. However, the need of Russia, the world’s fourth largest phosphate producer, for Syrian phosphate remains a mystery, especially after they forcefully removed Iran from the field of competition.
According to the General Director of the General Company for Phosphates and Mining, Ghassan Khalil, phosphate production in Syria in 2018 reached 200,000 tons a month — about 2.4 million tons a year, amid efforts to increase production to five million tons a year. Syria’s production of phosphate rocks reached 2.8 million tons in 2010. Production declined in the first year of the revolution and then stopped when the Islamic State (ISIS) took control over the Khanifish and Al-Sharqiya fields in the eastern Homs countryside.
The Russian company’s control over Syrian phosphate came after Russia and the Al-Nimr Forces took control of the Kanifish and Al-Sharqiya fields in Palmyra, from the Iranian militias which had taken over the area and expelled the Islamic State group. In 2017, the Iranian militias had captured the phosphate fields following a visit from the Syrian Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, to Tehran, to inform them that Iranian companies would be given phosphate extraction rights. The Al-Nimr Forces quickly intervened to take control of the area and remove the Iranian militias from the second largest phosphate reserve in the Arab world.
An official source in the Syrian General Institution for Geology told the media that an agreement was made with a Russia company, which had the ability to produce and use phosphate in Syria, based on production-sharing. He said that the “state’s share was 30 percent of the total volume of produced phosphate, as well as the land fees and licenses.” He continued: “Additionally there would be the fees and expenses of the institution’s supervision, and other taxes and fees, of around two percent, for a period of 50 years, and they would produce annually about 2.2 tons of blocks out of geological reserves of about 105 million tons.”
The Stroytransgaz company, which specializes in oil and gas, is not new to the Syrian market. It entered it in 2005 through the implementation of the Arab Gas Pipeline, and had control of a gas plant south of the central region. However the delivery of vital Syrian sectors into the hands of Russia and the pressuring of the regime to end previous understandings with Iran around phosphate investment has created semi-public disputes with Iran and doubts about Russia’s true intentions.
Publicly, Russia has claimed that its interest in Syrian phosphate revolves around its desire to increase its phosphate reserve, estimated at 700 million tons, after its annual production in 2017 reached 12.5 million metric tons.
However, Russia’s interest in Syrian phosphates could perhaps be related to a side compound, cadmium, a carcinogen found in phosphate. European Union health concerns around high cadmium rates have previously led to regulating the amount of cadmium waste permitted in phosphate fertilizer imports. Russia monopolizes the fertilizers market in the European Union, taking advantage of its production of low cadmium apatite phosphates. Sources told Al-Modon that Syrian phosphates are also distinguished by a low cadmium rate, which ranges between three to five parts per million. This could be an important reason for the Russian takeover of Syrian phosphates, despite the small production volume in Syria compared with Russia.
Russia could also benefit from increasing its stock of Syrian phosphate to confront competition in the fertilizer market in the European Union, and avoiding increasing the risk of poisonous chemical elements found in phosphates being exported to the European Union. Various indicators have shown Syrian phosphate, produced by Russia, reaching European markets.
In March 2018, the Al-Watan newspaper, which is owned by Rami Makhlouf, quoted the Director of the General Company for Phosphates and Mining, Ghassan Khalil, as saying that “the company has begun to export quantities of phosphates to the European market.” It is likely that there are intermediary companies in Russia re-exporting Syrian phosphates to the European market, after European sanctions banned dealing with the regime government directly in the military and petrochemical and oil derivatives sectors.
There is also another reason for Russia’s focus on Syrian phosphates. During the process of transforming phosphates to fertilizer, a secondary component is radioactive uranium. Syrian phosphates, in theory, contain a rate of up to 300 grams per metric ton, according to Al-Modon’s sources. This is a high rate compared to other types of phosphates, which do not exceed uranium rates of 200 grams per metric ton. Al-Modon’s sources did not know how uranium is extracted from phosphate, but did know that before the revolution, the Syrians had managed to separate uranium from phosphates.
The high volume of activity in the Russian phosphates sector has sown doubts about whether Russia really wanted to diversify its sources of phosphates or has taken control of the Syrian phosphates extraction rights for other purposes, such as benefiting from the low cadmium rates and the high uranium rates per metric ton.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.