Saturday, May 01, 2010

Phosphorus and Morocco - the future

The geographic concentration of phosphate mines threatens to usher in an era of intense resource competition. Nearly 90 percent of the world's estimated phosphorus reserves are found in five countries: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. In comparison, the 12 countries that make up the OPEC cartel control only 75 percent of the world's oil reserves. - Foreign Policy Magazine

Moroccan phosphate mine

While we often read stories of "peak oil" and the problems of a diminishing supply, little is said about phosphorus. Yet this resource is important. A recent edition of Foreign Policy Magazine has this to say: Our dwindling supply of phosphorus, a primary component underlying the growth of global agricultural production, threatens to disrupt food security across the planet during the coming century. This is the gravest natural resource shortage you've never heard of.

So why is phosphorus imortant? Phosphorus is used extensively for a variety of key functions in all living things, including the construction of DNA and cell membranes. As it is relatively rare in the Earth's crust, a lack of phosphorus is often the limiting factor in the growth of plants and algae. In humans, it plays an essential role in bone formation. Without a steady supply of this resource, global agricultural production will face a bottleneck, and humankind's growing population will suffer a serious nutrition shortage.

The world's reliance on phosphorus is an unappreciated aspect of the "Green Revolution," a series of agricultural innovations that made it possible to feed the approximately 4.2 billion-person increase in the global population since 1950. This massive expansion of global agricultural production required a simultaneous increase in the supply of key resources, including water and nitrogen. Without an increase in phosphorus, however, crops would still have lacked the resources necessary to fuel a substantial increase in production, and the Green Revolution would not have gotten off the ground.

By 2008, industrial farmers were applying an annual 17 million metric tons of mined phosphorus on their fields. Demand is expanding at around 3 percent a year -- a rate that is likely to accelerate due to rising prosperity in the developing world (richer people consume more meat) and the burgeoning bioenergy sector, which also requires phosphorus to support crop-based biofuels.

Our supply of mined phosphorus is running out. Many mines used to meet this growing demand are degrading, as they are increasingly forced to access deeper layers and extract a lower quality of phosphate-bearing rock (phosphate is the chemical form in which nearly all phosphorus is found). Some initial analyses from scientists with the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative estimate that there will not be sufficient phosphorus supplies from mining to meet agricultural demand within 30 to 40 years. Although more research is clearly needed, this is not a comforting time scale.

The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) is a collaboration between independent research institutes in Europe, Australia and North America. The main objective of the GPRI is to facilitate quality interdisciplinary research on global phosphorus security for future food production. In addition to research, the GPRI also facilitates networking, dialogue and awareness raising among policy makers, industry, scientists and the community on the implications of global phosphorus scarcity and possible solutions.

We have pointed out that the phosphorus situation has many similarities with oil, yet unlike oil, there is no substitute for phosphorus in food production. Phosphorus cannot be manufactured, though fortunately it can be recovered and reused over and over again. But peak phosphorus is also linked to peak oil. For example, the recent oil price shock and growing concern about climate change has stimulated a dramatic increase in biofuel crop production globally, which in turn increases the demand for phosphate fertilizers, and hence the proximity of the phosphorus peak.

Already, signs are emerging that our current practices cannot continue for long. Between 2003 and 2008, phosphate fertilizer prices rose approximately 350 percent. In 2008, rising food prices sparked riots in more than 40 countries. Although the spike in fertilizer prices was only partially responsible for the higher food prices, the riots illustrate the social upheaval caused by disruptions to the world's food supply. The 2008 food riots were only stopped by government promises of food subsidies -- a viable strategy only as long as governments can afford the ever-increasing costs of food support. - Foreign Policy Magazine.


Morocco is an important player in these scenarios. Many of Morocco's phosphate mines are in Western Sahara, where problems with the Algerian backed Polisario Front are ongoing. Reflecting these concerns, U.N.-sanctioned export restrictions on phosphate and other resources are now in place, though the efficacy of the bans is incomplete. China, the country with the largest phosphorus reserves after Morocco, imposed a 135 percent tariff on the resource as part of 2008's complex series of events in which rising fuel and fertilizer costs led to rapid increases in food prices. The tariff effectively eliminated exports. Although the tariff was subsequently lifted as the 2008 food crisis faded, the imposition of this sort of trade barrier could become a regular occurrence as supplies dwindle worldwide.

The USA now imports 10% of its phosphorus from Morocco. The most productive mine in the USA is in Florida but according to Foreign Policy Magazine, it is expected to be depleted within 20 years. The future is uncertain, but Morocco will play a key role.

The article in Foreign Policy is worth reading. Check it here


Jamal said...

I'm an oil market analyst so I'm familiar with the peak oil and biofuel debates that rage. I'd been totally unaware of the phosphate issue though and found the obvious connection you raise here to the biofuel question very enlightening. Thanks for posting this.

Env. Policy Analysis said...

Do you happen to know if any of the plants in Morocco use any type of air pollution control technology? If they do, is it voluntary or mandated by the government?