This post is about a resource that is not discussed much, but whose importance to our survival is paramount. It was named one of the top six natural resources most depleted by human usage. All living organisms, including bacteria, require phosphorus in order to live. Modern industrial farming is dependent on phosphorus, and industrial civilization’s primary supply for this vital nutrient is phosphate rock, a finite and nonrenewable resource which cannot be synthesized or created in a lab:
…Just like oil, phosphorus cannot be replaced or artificially manufactured. It can only be recycled through the application of organic matter. However, since urban areas started to use flush toilets, phosphorus was no longer returned to the soil, but washed out into water systems. The use of the local organic matter was then replaced by phosphate rock, which has to be mined or drilled out from the deep soil.
According to Petter Jensen, professor at the University of Biotechnology and Environment in Oslo, phosphorus will soon be a rare and valuable resource. He has been analysing phosphorous production for more than twenty years, and concluded that based on the data available, it is clear that the alarm bells should be ringing…
Cheap energy has allowed humans to extract increasingly greater amounts of phosphate rock in order to propel the ‘Green Revolution’ and support the explosion of world population over the last six decades.
…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…
As you can see from the following graphs, the increase of the global population tracks with that of oil production and the mining of phosphate rock:
Now if “Hubbert Linearization” is used to predict the ultimate recoverable amount of mined phosphate rock, then we get a graph like the one created by the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI):
The GPRI estimates the peak of phosphorus to occur around 2033. As with many other commodities, oil plays an important part in the price of phosphate rock. In the following graph, the spike in phosphate rock price coincides with the oil price spike of 2008. That same year China also imposed a temporary export tariff of 135% on their reserves:
The concept and analysis of peak phosphorus is based on the following premises:
1. Phosphate rock is a finite resource that takes 10s to 100s of millions of years to cycle or ‘renew’ naturally;
2. Phosphate rock is a non-homogenous resource, where the higher quality, more easily accessible layers are mined first;
3. As a result of 1 and 2 above, this means that over time, the average quality of phosphate rock is deceasing, in terms of P2O5 percentage (and also the increasing presence of impurities and heavy metals). This is also supported by empirical evidence;
4. Premise 3 means that increasing energy, resources, and costs are required per unit output of nutrient. That is, to extract the same nutrient content (e.g., P2O5) over time requires increasing inputs;
5. Premise 3 also means that extracting the same nutrient output generates more waste byproducts;
6. While the short and medium term costs may fluctuate due to short term changes in demand or improvements in production methods, over the long term costs and energy inputs will increase, and indeed will increase not linearly, but exponentially as ore concentrations decline and will require an increasing amount of phosphate rock to be mined. Observable changes over time typically occur once approximately 50% of the resource has been consumed;
7. While there may be some fluctuations causing year-to-year variation in phosphate production (due to supply-side or demand-side variables, there will always be a global demand for phosphorus, as argued in section 2);
8. This means at some critical point, the increasing annual production of phosphate rock will become unviable due to increasing energy, economic and other constraints, while demand will continue to increase.
A key significance of peak phosphorus analysis is that the critical point in time is not when 100% of the reserves are depleted, but much sooner than this. This means, preparing for a soft-landing will need to take this timeline into account, given that most measures (such as those outlined later in section 7 and ) will take decades to be implemented. It must be re-iterated here that farmers need both annual and long-term access to phosphorus fertilizers in order to achieve high crop yields. If no action is taken decades before the anticipated peak, a hard-landing response to peak phosphorus is likely to result in a situation of:
• increased energy and raw material consumption;
• increased production, processing and transport costs;
• increased generation of waste and pollution;
• further short-term price spikes;
• long-term trend of increased mineral phosphate prices;
• increased geopolitical tensions;
• reduced farmer access to fertilizer markets;
• reduced global crop yields; and
• increased global hunger.
Key factors likely to contribute to a net increasing future demand for phosphorus include:
increased population growth (9 billion expected by 2050) causing a surge in food demand;
per capita increased phosphorus demand due to changing dietary preferences towards more meat and dairy products (especially in growing economies like China and India), which require significantly more phosphorus fertilizer per capita.
increasing demand for non-food crops like biofuels (energy crops require substantial amounts of phosphorus fertilizers to ensure high crop growth) or lithium-iron-phosphate electric vehicle batteries, which can require 60 kg of phosphate per battery;
The need to boost soil fertility in phosphorus-deficient regions. Industry projections of demand are often based on the current market demand, that is, those players with purchasing power. However there is a large ‘silent’ demand from poor farmers with phosphorus-deficient soils that cannot currently access fertilizer markets. In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, where at least 30% of the population is undernourished, fertilizer application rates are extremely low and 75% of agricultural soils are nutrient deficient thus yields are falling.
While improvements in efficiency in phosphorus recovery from mining may decrease demand for phosphate rock, it is likely that the factors placing upward pressure on demand would still outweigh these efficiency gains.
Only a couple of countries hold the majority of phosphate rock. Interestingly, upon joining the World Trade Organization, China’s reported reserves doubled overnight. Like Saudi Arabia’s dubious stated oil reserves, China’s commercial interests and lack of transparency appear to have muddied a true accounting of their phosphate rock reserves.
Morocco, known as the ‘Saudi Arabia of phosphate’, is the major source on the market. If you speak to anyone from that country involved in their phosphate industry, they will tell you there’s no problem with supply. Similarly, the Saudis swear that they can meet the needs of the world oil market far into the distant future. Experts on the global extraction of phosphate rock are not swayed by reassurances from industry suppliers:
Author of the report ‘A rock and a hard place: Peak phosphorus and the threat to our food security’, Dr. Isobel Tomlinson, has said:
“A radical rethink of how we farm, what we eat and how we deal with human excreta, so that adequate phosphorus levels can be maintained without reliance on mined phosphate, is crucial for ensuring our future food supplies.
Competing with our food supply’s need for phosphates are biofuels whose production also requires large amounts of the nutrient. Biofuel from algae is the latest proposal to solve our liquid fuel needs, but according to Professor Chris Rhodes, phosphate is the Achilles’ heel of biofuels and it’s not feasible to replace global oil consumption with biofuels:
World rock phosphate production amounts to around 140 million tonnes. In comparison, we would need 352 million tonnes of the mineral to grow sufficient algae to replace all the oil-derived fuels used in the world.2 The US produces less than 40 million tonnes of rock phosphate annually, but to become self-sufficient in algal diesel would require around 88 million tonnes of the mineral. Hence, for the US, security of fuel supply could not be met by algae-to-diesel production using even all its indigenous rock phosphate output, and significant further imports would be needed. This is in addition to the amount of the mineral necessary to maintain existing agriculture. In principle, phosphate could be recycled from one batch of algae to the next, but how exactly this might be done remains a matter of some deliberation. e.g. The algae could be dried and burned, and the phosphate extracted from the resulting “ash”, or the algae could be converted to methane in a biodigester, releasing phosphate in the process. Clearly there are engineering and energy costs attendant to any and all such schemes and none has been adopted as yet…
“Personalised transport (cars) will be largely a thing of the past.” says Professor Rhodes.
Now if we can just get rid of all the world’s cars and retrofit all the toilets to recycle the global human population’s urea and feces, then maybe we’ll have a chance to survive. Oh yeah, I forgot about that climate change problem.