Resource Snapshot (5): Phosphorus

Resource Snapshot (5): Phosphorus

St. Gallen, August 2011. The World Resources Forum Secretariat continues the series “Resource Snapshots” with phosphorus. Ideally, we will shift from importing phosphate rocks to using renewable phosphate fertilizers (such as human excreta and biomass) in the future because this would provide more security to countries that are not rich in reserves. You can learn in less than 2 minutes the key issues of this precious resource.

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Applications and use

Currently, 90% of phosphorus demanded globally is used in food production[fn]Cordell, D.; Drangert, J.; White, S. (2009): The Story of Phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought. In: Global Environmental Change, Volume 19, Issue 2, p. 292 – 305. Online: http://www.agci.org/dB/PDFs/09S2_TCrews_StoryofP.pdf (last access: 29.07.2011).[/fn]. Phosphates, the oxidised and most common form of phosphorus, is used as a fertiliser in modern agriculture to promote plant growth, increase crop yields and replenish the nutrients of the soil after crops have been harvested[fn]Cordell, D. (2008), The Story of Phosphorus: missing global governance of a critical resource, Preliminary findings from 2 years of doctoral research. Paper prepared for SENSE Earth System Governance, VU University Amsterdam, 24th-31st August, 2008. Online: http://phosphorusfutures.nethttp://www.wrforum.org/wp-content/uploads/files/DCordell_SENSEpaper.pdf (last access 03.08.2011).[/fn]. It not only enhances the health of plants but also that of humans and animals: phosphates are used in vitamin supplements for humans and animal feed supplements. Phosphorus is also vital in the manufacturing process of various products such as steel electroplating, toothpaste, detergents and soft drinks[fn]Lifton, J: Feeding the World’s Hunger for Phosphorus. Online: http://www.resourceinvestor.com/News/2011/6/Pages/Feeding-the-Worlds-Hunger-for-Phosphorus.aspx (last access: 30.07.2011).[/fn].

Mining

Historically, phosphorus was not mined as the amount of phosphorus that occurred naturally in soil, organic matter like manure and even human excreta- common in areas of the world like Asia- was sufficient for crop production[fn]Mårald, E. (1998) I mötet mellan jordbruk och kemi: agrikulturkemins framväxt på Lantbruksakademiens experimentalfält 1850-1907, Institutionen för idéhistoria, Univ Umeå.[/fn]. However, in order to facilitate the rapid population growth and food demand we have experienced in previous decades, phosphorus is now mined from phosphate rock by strip mining techniques[fn]UNEP (2011): Phosphorus and Food Production. Online: http://www.unep.org/yearbook/2011/pdfs/phosphorus_and_food_productioin.pdf (last access: 02.08.2011).[/fn]. It is important to note that the current system of mining is relatively inefficient as significant losses occur throughout the system. For example, although humans consume about 3 MT of phosphorus annually, the amount of phosphorus mined for foot production is 5 times this amount (14.9 MT)[fn]Cordell, D. (2008), The Story of Phosphorus: missing global governance of a critical resource, Preliminary findings from 2 years of doctoral research. Paper prepared for SENSE Earth System Governance, VU University Amsterdam, 24th-31st August, 2008. Online: http://phosphorusfutures.net/files/DCordell_SENSEpaper.pdf (last access 03.08.2011).[/fn].

Reserves

The situation with phosphorus reserves is similar to that of oil and other non-renewable resources in that the rate of global production of phosphate rocks will eventually peak and then decline. The exact time as to when this peak will occur is widely contested- some suggest that this could occur by 2034[fn]Cordell, D.; Drangert, J.; White, S. (2009): TheStory of Phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought. In: Global Environmental Change, Volume 19, Issue 2, p. 292 – 305. Online: http://www.agci.org/dB/PDFs/09S2_TCrews_StoryofP.pdf (last access: 29.07.2011).[/fn] (see figure on the left) whereas an IFDC study suggests that there will not be a peak phosphorus event within the next 20-25 years, mainly because reserves have been re-estimated at 65,000 MT instead of 16,000 MT[fn]Cordell, D.; White, S.; Lindström,T. (2011): Peak phosphorus: the crunch time for humanity? http://www.thesustainabilityreview.org/2011/04/peak-phosphorus-the-crunch-time-for-humanity/ (last access: 02.08.2011).[/fn].

Although the timing of the production peak is uncertain, there is no denial from the fertilizer industry that the quality of the existing phosphate rocks is declining while the energy required to process and transport phosphate fertilizers is increasing[fn]Cordell, D. (2008), The Story of Phosphorus: missing global governance of a critical resource, Preliminary findings from 2 years of doctoral research. Paper prepared for SENSE Earth System Governance, VU University Amsterdam, 24th-31st August, 2008. Online: http://phosphorusfutures.net/files/DCordell_SENSEpaper.pdf (last access 03.08.2011).[/fn]. Furthermore, it is argued that the important period to acknowledge when the high quality and highly accessible reserves are depleted, not when 100% of the reserves are depleted because reserves that are of low quality will be uneconomical to mine and process[fn]Hubbert, M. K. (1949) Energy from fossil fuels.[/fn]. Currently, the bulk of these reserves can be found in Morocco/ Western Sahara as seen in the figure below.

Recent Price Developments

The demand for phosphorus has been rising in the recent decades and will continue to do so due to the increasing popularity of meat and dairy-based diets as well as the expansion of the biofuel industry (which was sparked by the concern over oil shortages and climate change). The biofuel industry is in direct competition with food production as the process of obtaining biofuel requires grains, productive land and phosphorus fertilisers. Hence it is not surprising that in 2007, a clear rise in phosphate rock demand and price due to ethanol production was observed[fn]Cordell, D.; Drangert, J.; White, S. (2009): TheStory of Phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought. In: Global Environmental Change, Volume 19, Issue 2, p. 292 – 305. Online: http://www.agci.org/dB/PDFs/09S2_TCrews_StoryofP.pdf (last access: 29.07.2011).[/fn]. A year later, the global food crisis struck, causing the price of phosphorus to increase by 700% within a 14 month period[fn]Minemakers Limited (2008): “Australia’s Mineral Supercycle Company!” Online: http://www.minemakers.com.au/downloads/080428AmendedInvestorPresentation.pdf (last access: 02.08.2011).[/fn]. The price did decline after the shock, but it has been steadily rising since March 2010 as shown in the figure below.

Environmental problems

The environmental problem usually associated with the use of phosphorus is eutrophication (the excessive development of vegetation) as phosphorus leaks from agricultural areas into the waterways[fn]CEEP (2011): Detergent phosphates : a sustainable detergent component. Online: http://www.ceep-phosphates.org/files/Document/phosphates1_engl.pdf (last access: 02.08.2011).[/fn]. However, these environmental problems are not only present in the end-of-life phase of phosphorus use but also in the processing, transportation and production of phosphorus. Processing and transporting phosphate fertilizers from the mines to the farms relies on cheap fossil fuels[fn]Cordell, D.; Drangert, J.; White, S. (2009): TheStory of Phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought. In: Global Environmental Change, Volume 19, Issue 2, p. 292 – 305. Online: http://www.agci.org/dB/PDFs/09S2_TCrews_StoryofP.pdf (last access: 29.07.2011).[/fn]. Furthermore, the production of the phosphate fertilizers results in significant carbon emissions, radioactive by-products and heavy metal pollutants as well- for example, each ton of phosphate processed from phosphate rock generates 5 tonnes of phosphogypsum, a toxic by-product of phosphate rock mining.

Social problems

As a result of the recent price spike of phosphorus and the sustained high prices, many poor farmers around the world do not have access to the phosphate fertilizer market. Furthermore, due to low purchasing power and access to credit, farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa- where fertilizers are most needed- have to pay 2-6 times more than what European farmers pay for phosphate fertilizers. Another issue is the inequity in the distribution of phosphate rocks- although every country requires phosphate to facilitate food production, the majority of phosphate rock reserves are currently controlled by only three countries, China, Morocco and the US.

Alternatives

Unlike oil and other non-renewable resources, there are currently no substitutes for phosphorus when it peaks[fn]Jasinski, S.M.,(2006), Phosphate Rock, Statistics and Information US Geological Survey.[/fn]. However, phosphorus can be recycled by projects such as urban mining that aims to recover phosphorus from human excreta and urine. This project yields an urban fertilizer that has a phosphate content of 16% and significantly lower heavy metal content compared to current fertilizers[fn]Schmundt, H. (2010) Experts Warn of Impending Phosphorus Crisis. Online: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,690450,00.html (last access: 09.08.2011).[/fn]. However such alternatives cannot replace phosphate rock in any significant way. In addition, the required physical and institutional infrastructure would take decades to implement[fn]Cordell, D. (2008), The Story of Phosphorus: missing global governance of a critical resource, Preliminary findings from 2 years of doctoral research. Paper prepared for SENSE Earth System Governance, VU University Amsterdam, 24th-31st August, 2008. Online: http://phosphorusfutures.net/files/DCordell_SENSEpaper.pdf (last access 09.08.2011).[/fn].

Outlook

Ideally, we will shift from importing phosphate rocks to using renewable phosphate fertilizers (such as human excreta and biomass) in the future because this would provide more security to countries that are not rich in reserves. Although there are ways to recover phosphorus, it is clear that we will also have to adopt a more sustainable approach towards using phosphorus especially as our population is growing- hence food demand will only increase in the future. One way to do so is to encourage diets that contain fewer phosphorus-intensive foods; it is estimated that meat based diets can result in the depletion of up to twice the phosphorus compared to a vegetarian diet[fn]Schmid-Neset, T., Bader, H., Scheidegger, R. & Lohm, U. (2005) The Flow of Phosphorus in Food Production and Consumption, Linköping, Sweden, 1870-2000, Department of Water and Environmental Studies, Linköping University and EAWAG Department S&E Dübendorf. [/fn]. Furthermore, the global phosphate scarcity must be addressed in the major debates on global food security and environmental change in order to create policies that will facilitate responsible, global management of phosphorus resources.


WRF Resource Snapshot (5) has been compiled by Natasha Chan. She would greatly appreciate corrections, suggestions or other remarks, which could improve this document. Suggestions for which other resources to choose are also welcome. Natasha can be reached through info@worldresourcesforum.org.


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