A quick internet search of the word ‘phosphate’ and it will not take you long to find suggestions that the planet will soon run out of phosphate. But why is this myth still so popular, and where did it begin?
Why is the ‘global phosphate shortage’ myth so popular?
The popularity of the ‘phosphate shortage myth’ is an internet phenomenon that needs to be left in the same bucket of ideas and conspiracy theories as ‘fake moon landings’ and ‘9/11 government planned attacks’. Given the importance that phosphate plays in feeding the world, it is a great scare story that is certain to get more clicks than a story reporting that we have only 400 years of rock phosphate remaining.
Much of the myth may be based on historic concerns created when other forms of fertilizer raw material began to deplete. When guano deposits began to empty at the end of the 19th century there was concern among fertilizer manufacturers and phosphorus traders on where the next supply would come from. Perhaps today’s ‘peak phosphate’ myth is simply history repeating itself.
Another reason for the story’s popularity is the recent phosphorus price uncertainty and the 2008 price spike, as a 2011 Yale University report by Fred Pearce, 'Phosphate: A Critical Resource Misused and Now Running Low' acknowledges, “Already, like other key commodities with once-dominant sources running low, the price of phosphate is starting to yo-yo alarmingly. Prices spiked at an 800-percent increase in 2008.”
Whilst the reasons for the sudden increase in the value of rock phosphate is complex (although largely involve Chinese export taxes and commodity trading forces), the natural economics of supply and demand could easily be blamed for such a price change. A logic that states; the price is jumping? We must be running out.
The myth is also evidently connected to the more factual 1974 theory by M.King Hubert who devised the term ‘peak oil’ based on “a point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which it is expected to enter terminal decline.”
Good ideas with simple, catchy phrases can easily be attached to bad ideas.
Where did the ‘global phosphate shortage’ myth begin?
Dating back to the start of this century, there have been reports of mankind using up the planet’s limited amount of phosphorus.
As the online food production journal, TheSalt, noted, “In the last decade or so, inspired by the conversation about peak oil, a few environmental researchers began talking about the possibility of peak phosphorus and the dangers that a decline in such a critical resource would pose to food production. But even those researchers acknowledged that the estimates of global phosphate reserves — and how long they'll last — were fuzzy.”
One of the key researchers warning of caution over phosphate supply was Dr Dana Cordell. Together with Jan-Olof Drangert and Stuart White, her 2009 report, ‘The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought’ stated that, “modern agriculture is dependent on phosphorus derived from phosphate rock, which is a non-renewable resource and current global reserves may be depleted in 50–100 years. While phosphorus demand is projected to increase, the expected global peak in phosphorus production is predicted to occur around 2030.”
And while the claim of a ‘peak phosphorus’ event in 2030 was highly contentious, Dr Cordell continues to preach caution. In a more recent 2011 analysis of phosphate supply, ‘Peak Phosphorus: Clarifying the Key Issues of a Vigorous Debate about Long-Term Phosphorus Security’, while accepting that the global supply of phosphate will not happen tomorrow, Dr Cordell states that, “The sudden emergence of the peak phosphorus and global phosphorus scarcity debate on the international arena has perhaps raised more questions than it has resolved.”
But Dr Cordell is not alone in preaching caution when it comes to extracting rock phosphate, as other environmental scientists hold similar concerns. For example, Geneviève Metson, a doctoral student in natural resource science at McGill University in Canada, stated in in a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters that, “The finite supply of P is a key concern because there are no substitutes for P and we cannot produce more than exists on Earth.” She then adds that, “We need to manage our food system in an equitable and sustainable way, and we need to look at many resources and priorities simultaneously.”
Today, Dr Cordell works at the Sydney based Institute for Sustainable Futures, where she has toned down her fears of ‘peak production’ but continues to recommend a cautious, environmentally friendly approach to phosphate extraction and use. Stating that, “While there is substantial uncertainty and lack of consensus regarding the size and longevity of remaining phosphate rock reserves, there is sufficient consensus between the scientific community, industry and others that the current situation is unsustainable with respect to the environmental impacts…inequitable access and geopolitics…the finite nature of phosphate rock and the inefficiency of phosphorus use throughout the current food production and consumption system.”
The ‘Peak Phosphorus’ Myth Debunked
Numerous other studies have since debunked theories of a ‘soon-to-happen phosphorus shortage’, so that today it is generally accepted that we have as much as 300 years of phosphate supply remaining at current rates of usage. While population growth and soil deterioration may account for an increased in demand for phosphate, there are thought to be numerous, as yet unknown or untapped deposits of phosphorus (for example, at the bottom of the sea).
As Juan von Gernet, a senior consultant on fertilizers for CRU, a commodities research and consulting firm in London, states, "Peak phosphorus is a total myth, and I don't think it's anything to worry about in our lifetime. There is a huge amount of phosphate in the land, and if we run out of that, there are a lot of unexplored areas on the seabed which can be extracted if required."
Similarly, Steven Van Kauwenbergh, principal scientist and leader of the Phosphate Research and Resources Initiative at IFDC, an international food security and agriculture organization, recently made it clear that, “Phosphorus is pretty far down the list of things we're going to suddenly run out of.”
Yes, phosphate is finite. Yes, we should use it wisely. No, we will not run out of phosphate anytime soon!
If you are interested in rock phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, STPP or other phosphorus raw materials then please take a look at the AG CHEMI GROUP product catalogue.
Photo credit: History's Shadow
Photo credit: Index Mundi
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