Science |Analysis

Is phosphorus running out and why does it matter?

  1. The demand for phosphorus is rising at twice the speed of human population growth and this will exceed supply by 2030.
  2. The U.S. is projected to exhaust its domestic phosphate reserves in 25 years
  3. Local Sahrawis have not been consulted about the exploitation of their natural resources which international law dictates, says Goldstein of Human Rights Watch

Morocco and pro-independence guerrillas in Western Sahara have been engaged in an unofficial war for 40 years, partially over the element phosphorus. Could this be a picture of the future as the world grapples with reduced resources of a mineral vital to farming and life itself?

In a message to the United States Congress in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said of the element phosphorus, “I cannot over-emphasize the importance of phosphorus, not only to agriculture and soil conservation, but also to the physical health and economic security of the people of the nation.” People listened.

Between 1950 and 2000 global use of fertilizers containing phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium increased six-fold, helping to support the world population boom of 2.5 billion to almost 6.1 billion during this period.

But what is phosphorus? For starters, it is the element P on the periodic table and 90 percent of it is used as a fertilizer for food production. Traditionally, phosphorus sources such as guano (bird excrement), manure and human faeces were used as a fertilizer but since about 1960, the majority has come from phosphate rock.

The site of secondary mining of Phosphate rock in Nauru, 2007.
Phosphate mine in the island country of Nauru in the Central Pacific. Nauru had the highest per-capita income of any sovereign state in the world in the late 1960s/early 1970’s because of its phosphate resources. (Photo Credit: Lorrie Graham/AusAID, CC BY 2.0)

However, despite phosphorus being the eleventh most common element in the Earth’s crust, only 0.007 percent is present in the concentrated form of phosphate rock, making most of it economically inaccessible. Even phosphate rock typically only contains 5 to 13 percent phosphorus.

And of phosphate reserves, only 20 percent is technically and economically feasible for extraction as of 2010 industry standards, according to geologist Steve Van Kauwenbergh.

Demand – and diminishing supply

Estimates of when humanity will exhaust global phosphate reserves vary between several decades to hundreds of years. Crucially however, the demand for phosphorus is rising at twice the speed of human population growth and The European Institute of Innovation and Technology says that this demand will overtake supply in 2030. The U.S. is projected to exhaust its domestic reserves in 25 years despite being one of the largest phosphate rock holders.

When global reserves will run out depends on future population growth, dietary patterns, energy demand and how much is recycled. Increasing wealth in developing nations will most likely mean more crops will have to be grown to feed cattle to meet demands for a more meat and dairy-based diet – which require up to three times as much phosphorus as vegetarian diets. Increasing demand for more environmentally friendly energy, such as bio fuels or electric powered cars will also put pressure on phosphorus resources, with 60 kgs (2011 academic study) of phosphate needed per electric vehicle battery.

Of accessible phosphate rock reserves the majority is controlled by just a handful of countries. Predictions vary but the scientific consensus is that the majority of these reserves are in Morocco/Western Sahara, China, the U.S and South Africa. These four/five countries hold 83 percent of the world’s phosphate reserves according to scientist David Vaccari. Ironically, Africa is the world’s largest exporter of phosphate rock, and also the continent with the largest food shortage, despite phosphorus being so crucial for food production.

phosphate ore
Picture of Phosphate ore (Photo CreditJames St. John, CC BY 2.0)

Recycling phosphorus

As countries exhaust their domestic supplies there is growing interest in recycling phosphorus. Several studies have estimated that 15–20 percent of the world’s phosphorus demand could be met by recovering it from wastewater and The World Health Organization suggests that recycled urine could provide half of the phosphate necessary to grow cereal crops.

Phosphorous recycling could also be the solution to other problems. For every tonne of processed phosphate rock, five tonnes of phosphogypsum is produced (a highly toxic by-product). Furthermore, wastewater containing phosphorus can cause eutrophication (when water receives excessive nutrients that causes dense plant growth). In 2011, the estimated annual cost of eutrophication in the United States alone was $2.2 billion and it has even resulted in “dead” zones in the Gulf of Mexico, as it has caused oxygen levels in the water to drop. Therefore recovering phosphorus from sewage presents a more environmentally friendly alternative.

However, little phosphate recovery is currently practiced, largely due to economic costs.

Geopolitical conflict

With dependence on phosphorus set to continue, the concentration of the element in so few countries presents risks.

In 2008, after the price of fertilizer increased by between 500 and 700 percent in a 14-month period, China temporarily imposed an export duty of 110-120 percent on phosphate rock, effectively to retain its domestic phosphate reserves. This price hike in phosphate led to food price increases which caused violent food riots in 40 countries.

Of world phosphate reserves, 40-75 percent is estimated to be are owned by the Office Cherifien des Phosphates, a Moroccan state agency, which the king controls and profits from.

Moreover, whether certain phosphate rock reserves are located in Morocco or Western Sahara is debatable, and once world phosphate reserves diminish this issue will become more pressing.

Morocco annexed 100,000 square miles of Western Sahara (then part of Mauritania) in 1975, after 350,000 Moroccans peacefully marched into the area and claimed it as their own, in what was known as the Green March. Spain, the colonial era power, divided the territory between Morocco and Mauritania. Ever since, the Polisario Front (an independence movement representing the indigenous Sahrawi people) has fought with Morocco over control of Western Sahara. In 1991 the United Nations (UN) negotiated a cease-fire between the two.

After the cease-fire an independence referendum was scheduled for 1992 where the people of Western Sahara would get to decide whether they want to be their own country or part of Morocco. However, with the Polisario Front and Morocco unable to agree on the terms no referendum has been held.

In 1987 Morocco finished construction of a 2,700 km wall through Western Sahara, dividing what it calls its Southern Provinces, from the eastern Polisario-controlled area. The UN maintains a presence on either side of the wall to stop either side advancing. This has left Morocco in control of 80 percent of Western Sahara – including most of the phosphate. The rest of Western Sahara has little resources.

The Deputy Director of the Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, Eric Goldstein, says progress has been made since the 80’s but after the 90’s it has largely stalled.

“The most severe abuses, that we saw of the late 80’s and early 90’s when the conflict was an armed one, that included disappearances, secret long-term detention and savage torture, are a thing of the past.”

However, he says torture still continues and that since the 90’s “the situation, in terms of human rights and the Moroccan controlled Western Sahara, has remained largely unchanged.” “It’s a police state,” he says. “People are unable to hold demonstrations, as long as their goal is to oppose Moroccan’s continued rule, or their goal is to urge a referendum for Western Sahara. People are arbitrarily arrested, tried on trumped up charges, and generally unable to express themselves even peacefully, in Western Sahara.”

Goldstein says, Moroccan authorities have transferred trials from military courts, which were often used for Sahrawi cases, to civilian ones, which doesn’t guarantee a fair trial but it’s a step in the right direction. Furthermore, he says authorities allowing legal recognition for one Sahrawi human rights organisation is “positive” but that “they’ve otherwise refused legal recognition for [other] organisations that hold that view.”

Goldstein says the Moroccan controlled area of Western Sahara has “abundant phosphates” and that Sahrawis have benefited from Morocco’s investment in the area but international law dictates local populations under occupation should be consulted about exploitation of their natural resources and this has “not happened.”

We have no ads and no paywall. If you believe in collaboration to produce quality neutral journalism for everyone, it is important that you sign up to support our work financially. Every penny goes towards improving WikiTribune!
Thanks, Jimmy Wales

Support us

Talk (10)

MF

Michal Frankl

"Very interesting story. As suggested ..."
Jack Barton

Jack Barton

"I think this has been suggested in th..."
Brendan Cawley

Brendan Cawley

"Re-reading, I'm realizing my comment ..."
Brendan Cawley

Brendan Cawley

"Sorry, not the spot for politics"

Sources & References

References


Author

United Kingdom
Harry is a masters graduand from Cardiff University, with a diploma in Magazine Journalism. He has an interest in politics and science, having previously studied Geography at Aberystwyth University. Follow Harry on Twitter @harryridgewell

History for Story "Is phosphorus running out and why does it matter?"

Select two items to compare revisions

  1. Time Contributor Edit
  2. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) minor edits
  3. RM Robbie Morrison (Contributions | Talk) "supersede" is the wrong word here
  4. RM Robbie Morrison (Contributions | Talk) removed misplaced 'strong' tags
  5. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) minor edit
  6. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) minor edit
  7. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) added highlights
  8. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) added pictures
  9. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) text update
  10. JC Jonathan Cardy (Contributions | Talk) Ores are measured in terms of the proprtion of the material they contain.
  11. Charles Anderson Charles Anderson (Contributions | Talk) style
  12. Adam Robertson Adam Robertson (Contributions | Talk) Grammar
  13. Benjamin Kerensa Benjamin Kerensa (Contributions | Talk) add image
  14. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) copy tidying
  15. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) wrong link removed
  16. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) link to FDR speech
  17. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) tidying intro sentence
  18. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) fixing struvite section
  19. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) rogue apostrophe in Sahrawis
  20. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) standardising cease-fire
  21. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) copy fixes, dashes, etc
  22. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) tightening sentence
  23. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) dash in vehicle battery sentence
  24. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) fixing cross-head
  25. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) dairy-based hyphen
  26. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) within to estimates sentence
  27. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) o out
  28. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) rogue o in phosphor'o'us
  29. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) deleting 90
  30. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) writing out 90
  31. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) smoothing copy
  32. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) moved according to's to end of sentence
  33. CV Cassandra Vinograd (Contributions | Talk) adds quote from Goldstein of HRW
  34. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) bolding and underlining what has changed
  35. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) minor edit
  36. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) minor edits
  37. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) removed twitter
  38. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) removed unnecessary links
  39. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) added highlights
  40. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) moved references to sources section
  41. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) updating references
  42. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) updated standfirst/synopsis and added twitter handle
  43. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) added the word the, deleted extra space
  44. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) trying to get it back to a minute ago
  45. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk)
  46. Peter Bale Peter Bale (Contributions | Talk) Copy edit by Editor-PGB
  47. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) removed extra space
  48. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) deleted space
  49. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) embedded links and bibliography updated
  50. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) changed standfirst
  51. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) links added, bibliography entries added
  52. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) added more and rearranged sections
  53. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) bibliography links embedded
  54. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) bibliography added
  55. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) most links embedded
  56. JC Jonathan Cardy (Contributions | Talk) copy edit
  57. Jimmy Wales Jimmy Wales (Contributions | Talk) adjusting link to suggest how it might be done given that we have no real footnoting capability yet?
  58. Harry Ridgewell Harry Ridgewell (Contributions | Talk) initial draft

Talk for Story "Is phosphorus running out and why does it matter?"

Talk about this Story

  1. Very interesting story. As suggested by Jimmy some time ago, the article doesn’t quite answer the opening question. I would appreciate an assessment by the author whether recycling has a real chance to compensate for the resources of phosphorus running out.

    Also, the section on Morocco would profit from a map.

  2. While I love a good environmental scare story as much as anyone, as I read this it could do with more along the lines of “perhaps phosphorous will no longer be too cheap to recycle”, and “perhaps we now need to move beyond the highest grade ores”. Without knowing how much of a longterm price rise this will cause either to phosphorous or to food, it is an unsatisfying result. I’m assuming that the cost of the phosphorous fertiliser is only a tiny proportion of the price of a bag of flour. Short term fluctuations in price may be destabilising, but a long term one sufficient to make it worth recycling from sewage? Probably not.

    1. Good point. At some point we will hopefully start accurately accounting for the costs implicit to food consumption (particularly meat), and then the market will balance itself out. For the time being though it isn’t very politically popular for the cost of “basics” to soar, so bringing attention to the political nature of resource scarcity is important. Perhaps it can help avoid another Iraq-oil situation…

      There is also a lot of room for innovation here so long as we continue to move to more sustainable energy sources. Optimism, but important to gain awareness.

      1. Re-reading, I’m realizing my comment isn’t adding much. Can we not delete comments after posting?

        1. I think this has been suggested in the feedback page at some point but I’ll raise it again with the tech team as a reminder. Thanks

  3. Maybe the story isn’t done, but I feel that it doesn’t really answer the question raised in the title – not in a way that I can quickly grasp as a reader.

    I think the answer appears to be “It probably isn’t running out” and “It matters because phosphorus has important uses”.

    1. Correct. The story is not done yet. This is where the issue of a story going through an editor is going to be interesting. Peter

      1. Also the issue of a story going through dozens of editors… 🙂

  4. Surely almost everyone has heard of phosphorus?

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive news, alerts and updates

Support Us

Why this is important and why you should care about facts, journalism and democracy

WikiTribune Open menu Close Search Like Previous page Next page Back Next Open menu Close menu RSS Feed Share on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Instagram Follow us on Youtube Connect with us on Linkedin Email us Message us on Facebook Messenger Save for Later