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Are We Running Out of Phosphorus?

This Business of Farming

Maybe not, but the countries that own reserves may scare you

Published on: February 15, 2011

 Some people think we are running out of phosphorus, a key ingredient in the plant nutrient mix.

 That was one of the more disturbing bits of information I ran across in my research for a story on global fertilizer last year.

 After a little more research, it turns out phosphorus reserves may be just fine. It's where they are located that has everyone worried.

 The fertilizer industry – particularly potash and phosphate – is a classic oligopoly, with very few established players that exist in a business that is extremely capital intensive. You can count on two hands the number of companies that produce those nutrients. It costs a couple billion dollars to open a new mine, says Joe Dillier, fertilizer analyst with GrowMark, a large farmer cooperative here in the U.S.

 'Peak phosphorus' Some scientists, notably Dana Cordell and Stuart White of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, believe phosphorus supplies could begin running out in 30 to 40 years, threatening long-term, worldwide famine. See their research here.

 The idea was fleshed out by White and another researcher, James Elser of the University of California, in an article in Foreign Policy. "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," claim the authors. "This is the gravest natural resource shortage you've never heard of." Click here for the full story.

 Then the New York Times picked up on this and ran a bit in their "Idea of the Day" blog back in April last year.

 But "Peak phosphate" is baloney, say others.

 “World Phosphate Rock Reserves and Resources,” a study released in September by the IFDC, a public organization focused on international food security, estimates that global resources of phosphate rock suitable to produce phosphate rock concentrate, phosphoric acid, phosphate fertilizers and other phosphate-based products will be available for several hundred years.

 "There is no evidence of a peak phosphorus event," says Steven J. Van Kauwenbergh, principal scientist and leader of IFDC’s Phosphate Research and Resources Initiative.

Steve Jasinski agrees. "I don't think there is a peak phosphorus situation to be concerned with at this time," says Jasinski, mineral commodity specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "Phosphate resources are large. The (peak phosphorus) assumptions were based on older reserve estimates and didn't take into account improvements in processing, higher prices, and other factors."

"The running out of phosphate in 30 years is a complete lie, pushed by a bunch of academics with an environmental axe to grind," adds Barrie Bain, an analyst with Fertecon, an industry tracking organization.

 Who controls what "Rather than peak phosphorus, there should be more emphasis on future supply patterns, with Morocco controlling most of the world's reserves," Jasinski told me.

Most phosphate mines, including those in the U.S. which own 17% of global resources, have been in decline for the past decade, hindered in part by environmental regulation. So companies must look farther afield to find supplies.

 According to the IFDC report, Morocco is sitting on about 50 billion tons of phosphate rock – a 300 to 400 year supply and possibly 80% of world reserves. Many of the country's mines are in Western Sahara, a disputed territory and site of human rights concerns. China has 7% of world reserves, but when food prices ran up in 2008 it slapped a 135% export tariff on phosphate exports.

 Phosphorus, says Auburn economist Bob Taylor, is "a geo-strategic ticking time bomb." With so few players in the industry, Taylor worries that one key ingredient in food production may eventually fall under the control of two or three nations.

 “Who will control the key inputs to food production?” he asks. "The political dimension is as large as the corporate dimension in fertilizer markets. We are setting ourselves up to rely more and more on agriculture inputs from politically unstable countries."