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.”

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