The Coming Global Phosphate Crisis
Phosphate is a mineral that is used in fertilizer to boost agricultural productivity. It is greatly responsible for the "green" revolution and the increased output of farms around the world. Unfortunately, the world will be coming to a point, if certain trends hold, where we will run out of phosphate. The mineral is widely used, but utterly unrecycled. Like fossil fuels, phosphate may come to a point where it is too costly to use, and world hunger may be the consequence.
Phosphate is an inorganic chemical mined from the earth. It typically consists of one phosphorus atom surrounded by oxygen atoms. The addition of phosphates can have a huge impact to an ecosystem. Like water and air, it is literally essential to life on Earth. On cropland, it can greatly boost yields. However, from there it usually drains into waterways. In freshwater and marine environments, it acts as a limiting nutrient, often causing eutrophication (oxygen deprived water).
The largest reserve of phosphate rock can be found in the country of Western Sahara, just south of Morocco. Once a Spanish colony, it is now controlled by Morocco. One of the reasons the Moroccans are so interested is thought to be the vast phosphate reserves. The mines are at Bou Craa which produces several million tons of phosphate rock each year. It gets transferred down a huge 150-kilometer long conveyor belt to the Atlantic port of El Ayoun.
Farmers around the world use about 170 million tons of phosphate every year to keep their soils fertile. One ton of phosphate is typically used for every 130 tons of grain. Fifteen percent of all phosphate comes from Western Sahara and Morocco. The other big producers are the US and China which each use up their own. This makes Western Sahara and Morocco the biggest players in the international phosphate trade. The biggest nations which rely on this trade are India and Brazil which may be starving otherwise.
According to the US Geological Survey, the world has 65 billion tons of known phosphate reserves, but only 16 billion tons that are economically viable to mine. Almost 80 percent are found in Western Sahara and Morocco. The US, with only 1.4 billion tons, may run out soon, causing alarm among agronomists. Academic researcher, Dana Cordell, of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, has predicted that we could reach "peak phosphorus" production by 2030.
There are no substitutes for phosphate. On the other hand, the other vital nutrient for plants, nitrogen, can be found from a number of sources. It can be fixed from the atmosphere thanks to German chemist Fritz Haber. Phosphate cannot be fixed from anything. It must be mined and the mines are going to run out. Unless a solution can be found, the long term consequences may be lower yield crops and a hungrier world.
For more information: http://phosphorusfutures.net/
Image shows Bou Craa conveyor belt. Image credit: http://theforeigner.no/pages/news/oil-fund-linked-to-illegal-phosphate-imports/