EDITOR: | October 12th, 2015 | 6 Comments

The P Word: Food for thought…

| October 12, 2015 | 6 Comments
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Society is three meals away from revolution. It is a quotation of uncertain origin but more definite outcomes. Deprive a culture of food and civilisation quickly crumbles.

The food we all eat is made by a highly efficient global agricultural industry. Crops have been carefully selected over the years to give most of us, in the richer parts of the world, palatable platefuls whenever we want.

Food crops generally need good soil, a favourable climate with warm air and water. They also need a myriad of nutrients; chemicals that help plants and animals grow and provide us with vital ingredients for our healthy growth. Some nutrients are more important than others. The big three are called NPK macronutrients and without these plants cannot grow. These three letters refer the chemical symbols of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium.

Of these three elements phosphorus is arguably the critical nutrient being a key component of DNA. We couldn’t even build our bones without phosphorus.

Phosphorus is vital for our global food production. It must be added to the land to make food crops grow. Plants and animals consume the phosphorus and we in turn consume them. Modern agricultural techniques rapidly exhaust the natural levels of phosphorus in the soil. This means that phosphorus needs to be purchased regularly and added to the land. Given this dependency it is interesting to ask the question; where does it come from?

Phosphorus occurs naturally in the earth as phosphates, concentrated in sediments that were created by biological activity or in rocks created by volcanic activity. Whatever the origin, the phosphorus must be mined. Agriculture as we know it cannot exist without this mining activity. 90% of this phosphorus is mined for use in agriculture.

Many countries around the world, notably China, the USA and Morocco, produce phosphorous.

2015-10-12-AdrianNixon-Phosphorous

The production figures show that China and the USA are the biggest two producers.

That is not the full story. These two nations mine phosphate rock primarily for their own consumption and when one looks at the exports and imports at the global level a different pattern emerges.

2015-10-12-AdrianNixon-Phosphorous-2.pngAfrica, (principally Morocco), is the largest exporter of phosphate rock to the world with East Europe / Central Asia and West Asia, (Russia, Jordan, Syria and Egypt) accounting for much of the rest.

Western Europe is uniquely vulnerable – has little or no natural reserves of phosphorus and is entirely dependent on imports, mainly from Morocco and Russia. It will come as no surprise that phosphorus is on the European Union’s risk radar.

At this point, dear reader, you are probably expecting me to introduce a looming scarcity of this most essential of life’s components. Some authors do raise the possibility of peak phosphorus during the 2030s and this is certainly worth exploring.  Other authors question the peak argument. The difference of opinion is partly caused by some world reserves being reported only in terms of ore and grade, not as marketable phosphate rock. The picture is further complicated when one considers that the amount of marketable phosphate rock has an economic component and this assessment of viability is constantly changing with the market price.

So, while there is some uncertainty about how much phosphorus will be available in the longer term (measured in decades) there is also reason to draw your attention to the shorter term (measured in years). This is because while there seems plenty of phosphorus in the ground, it is not evenly distributed.

Let’s look at who has how much of the stuff in their territory. 2015-10-12-AdrianNixon-Phosphorous-3.jpg

Now we can see the true nature of the unequal distribution of phosphorus reserves around the world. 75% of the world’s store is located in Morocco.

This is evidently not a problem. Global trade activity seems to be managing this disparity quite well getting the materials to parts world that need it from those who have it – at an affordable price.

Thinking ahead, the issue on the horizon could be an interruption in supply caused by political instability in these countries. This would create price shocks in the market that really would affect all of us.

So how stable is the largest exporter of phosphate rock? The Economist Intelligence Unit keeps an eye on these things. The answer appears to be stable and in control. The government has brought in limited reforms that have helped it weather the Arab uprisings. However unemployment is high, particularly among the young educated urban population. The Economist notes that last year in a country of 33 million people only 21,000 new jobs were created.

Keep an eye on happenings in this part of the world; the ripples of change could reach us all. In its report the USGS notes, “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture”.


Editor:

Adrian Nixon began his career as a scientist and is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. As a scientist and ... <Read more about Adrian Nixon>


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Comments

  • Tracy Weslosky

    How timely that you write this Adrian on Canadian Thanksgiving when we are thinking about how to eat as much as possible without gaining weight – thank you.

    The implications of the Moroccan control of phosphorous is certainly one to ponder — and we have done a lot of coverage on Ethiopia and potash over the years, but not phosphorous: thank you.

    Very, very interesting.

    October 12, 2015 - 10:37 AM

  • Jack Lifton

    Adrian,

    This is an outstanding article highlighting a critical material that we North Americans take for granted.

    Jack

    October 12, 2015 - 10:51 AM

  • hackenzac

    There are lots of people who question the NPK to corn sugar paradigm especially in terms of sustainability and soil conservation but reasonably can add security to the list. Grass-based polyculture rather than energy and chemical based monoculture may better serve national interests, much better than invading Morocco would be if it came down to it. A good discussion on this Michael Pollan’s book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. Soil conservation may very well be at the core of carbon sequestration that needs to happen if we’re going to put the brake on CO2 in the atmosphere NPK agriculture depletes the soil and I would argue that using less rather than obtaining more is the way to go.

    October 12, 2015 - 3:21 PM

  • Jeff Thompson

    And as a corollary to the world’s dependence on phosphorus for agriculture, it seems to me only a matter of time before the only solution we’re left with is building desalination plants on a massive scale to supply enough clean drinking water, given that the world is adding another billion people about every 10-15 years. Living in the California drought, I feel like I’m the only who can see that the constant government hype/peer pressure to reduce water consumption is only going to take you so far (linear improvements in the per person consumption rate), while the world faces logarithmic increases over the long term that will keep growing the total demand, regardless of “efficiency” (per person) improvements.
    Perhaps a similar argument could be made for fertilizer/agricultural constraints, or for that matter rare earth aggregate demand.

    October 12, 2015 - 7:05 PM

  • Adam

    Great article!! Why should anyone not do everything in their control to conserve this precious resource. There is a cutting edge company called Multiform Harvest Inc., based in Seattle WA that has commercial instalations involved in the regeneration of phosphorus from wastewater; in municipal waste water and dairy wastewater operations. The key solution to declining resources is recover and reuse. We humans are wasteful and if nit careful, we will be the end of us. Can you imagine the price of phosphorus fertilizers if an issue occurred in Morocco!! OR when we realise that the real risk of peak P is upon us!! Hmmmmm……

    October 12, 2015 - 8:02 PM

  • jjbeswick

    As an aside phosphate pollution (usually from agricultural runoff) and consequent algal blooms are a serious problem for rivers, reef systems and my swimming pool.
    The best solution – both large and small scale – are rare earth salts usually La or Ce.

    October 13, 2015 - 2:25 AM

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