The EU parliament recently supported a proposed change in the law for rock phosphate imports, by lowering the legal amount of cadmium (Cd) permissible. While the tighter regulations may help lower cadmium levels in soils and plants, some experts warn that the changes will have a damaging effect on many fertilizer manufacturers, as well as negatively impacting the EU agriculture industry as a whole.
Certainly, the law changes will bring in a level of confusion, as currently, fertilizer products do not label cadmium content levels. Added to this is the varying rate of cadmium found naturally in the soil. Is it necessary to enforce such strict limits on areas which have naturally low levels of cadmium?
Cadmium, atomic number 48
The proposed law changes were made during a European Parliament plenary vote, where MEPs voted in favour of the EU Commission’s proposal on Oct 24th 2017. As Bloomberg reports, “The EU executive proposed the limit be set at 60mg/kg, falling to 40mg after three years and 20mg after 12 years under planned rules for fertilizers carrying the CE mark. It was agreed that producers need longer transition periods before the introduction of the lower limits. These limits are significantly lower than the voluntary limit of 280 parts per million imposed in New Zealand.”
Certainly cadmium, despite naturally occurring, is not a welcome mineral. As Faustine Bas-Defossez, the European Environmental Bureau EEB Policy Manager for Agriculture and Bioenergy, said on the Bureau’s website, “Not only is cadmium a carcinogen but it is also linked to osteoporosis, kidney failure, heart disease, and fertility problems. Around 910,000 adults in France alone exceed tolerable intake limits of cadmium by 90%.”
While this may make a clear case to restrict sources of rock phosphate which are high in cadmium, not everyone agrees on the new limits.
Reporting on the proposed law change, Polish MEP Tomasz Włostowski, writes in The Parliament Magazine, that, “The EU's own health and environment watchdog stated in 2015 that Cd levels in EU soils are falling. Scientific studies show that an average Cd content below 80 mg will cause Cd reductions in soils. A maximum limit of 80 mg will deliver much lower averages and will therefore will accelerate this reduction.” Adding that, “Cd limits below 80 mg will lead to a major phosphorus shortage. There is no real substitution for mineral phosphate fertilizers for now.”
While the MEP is correct in saying that there are currently no real replacements for phosphate fertilizers, it seems that the majority of his colleagues in Brussels fear the health of the population more than the health of the European agriculture industry. Battle lines on the issues have clearly been drawn, with the EEB itself stating in a press release that, “Shamefully, some MEPS were pushing for a 60mg/kg limit and even an 80mg/kg limits.”
Undetered, Włostowski went even further on a further posting, to state that, “The uncomfortable truth is that low limits will endanger phosphate fertilizer producers and blenders in Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and the UK. The limits will only benefit Russian producers, which have monopolized low-cadmium apatite phosphate deposits and which already dominate the EU fertilizer market.”
Possibly, the law changes are based on geo-political or economic regions, because, as an EU working policy paper notes, “The cadmium content of phosphate rock varies considerably from one source to another. The phosphate rocks which are mined in Finland, Russia and South Africa are igneous rocks i.e. they were formed deep within the earth, and have very low cadmium contents (sometimes below 10 mg). In contrast, those found in North and West Africa and the Middle East are sedimentary rocks i.e. they formed on the seabed by the decay of organic matter, and generally have much higher cadmium levels. In North and West Africa (Tunisia, Togo, Senegal), the levels are frequently above 60 mg cadmium/kg, while Morocco, the most important EU supplier, does have deposits which lead to cadmium content in fertilisers above or lower the 60 mg cadmium/kg. In the Middle East (Jordan, Syria, Egypt), the rocks are also sedimentary but the cadmium content is lower at about 20-40 mg cadmium/kg.”
While it is possible to remove Cadmium from rock phosphate supplies, this does come at a price. As the EU working policy paper notes, “Based on overall cost structure (price of phosphoric acid, ammonia, sulphur and phosphate rock) and estimated decadmiation running costs between €12 and €32 per ton, experts at the International Fertilisers Association (IFA) have estimated a possible price increase for phosphate fertilisers derived from sedimentary rock phosphate with high cadmium content in the range of 2 to 7 %.”
In an industry with notably small margins, an added 5% onto costs may be prohibitively expensive. Phosphate suppliers, and fertilizer manufacturers should therefore be prepared for some market adjustments in the coming months and years.
Already, Chatham Rock Phosphate, a New Zealand based supplier of phosphate fertilizer, is sharing news of the EU decision as a business opportunity. Managing Director Chris Castle stating in a recent press release that, “The tests we have conducted show our rock phosphate has among the lowest cadmium levels known. This will be good news for farmers who choose to use our product (either as a processed fertiliser or as direct application rock) when we start production in 2022 and ultimately it will be good for consumers.”
It is never a clean war when politics and economics meet, and so it may prove if, and when EU legislation is changed to reflect lower cadmium limits on rock phosphate imports. Perhaps time will show the law change to be unnecessary with little impact on soil and plant cadmium levels. Perhaps it is best to be cautious and keep limits low until the full effects on public health are known. Until then, one may expect more heated words in the EU parliament, and some fireworks in the rock phosphate marketplace.
Watch this space for more news on phosphate prices, or contact one of AG CHEMI GROUP’s sales team to learn more about the advantages of AG CHEMI GROUP’s phosphate supply chain, or take a look at the catalogue.
Alexandra Chepak, AG CHEMI GROUP's Monocalcium Phosphate specialist
Timur Khafizov, AG CHEMI GROUP's Sales Director.
Photo credit: EEB, Thyssenkrupp, sweetwaternow, and wikipedia