Our other fertilizer problemEXCERPT:
Here's Foreign Policy:
By 2008, industrial farmers were applying an annual 17 million metric tons of mined phosphorus on their fields. Demand is expanding at around 3 percent a year -- a rate that is likely to accelerate due to rising prosperity in the developing world (richer people consume more meat) and the burgeoning bioenergy sector, which also requires phosphorus to support crop-based biofuels.
But there's a problem....
Our supply of mined phosphorus is running out. Many mines used to meet this growing demand are degrading, as they are increasingly forced to access deeper layers and extract a lower quality of phosphate-bearing rock (phosphate is the chemical form in which nearly all phosphorus is found). Some initial analyses from scientists with the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative estimate that there will not be sufficient phosphorus supplies from mining to meet agricultural demand within 30 to 40 years.
Moreover, like oil, mine-friendly phosphate rock is geographically concentrated--indeed, even more so than petroleum.
Nearly 90 percent of the world's estimated phosphorus reserves are found in five countries: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. In comparison, the 12 countries that make up the OPEC cartel control only 75 percent of the world's oil reserves.
Already, geopolitical tensions are rising. Morocco is the site of 37 percent of the globe's known phosphate rock reserves. Not a great situation, FP observes:
Many of Morocco's phosphate mines are in Western Sahara, a disputed independent territory that is occupied by Morocco and the site of growing international human rights concerns. Reflecting these concerns, U.N.-sanctioned export restrictions on phosphate and other resources are now in place, though the efficacy of the bans is incomplete.
During the global food crisis in 2008, China--which also has large phosphate reserves--banned exports of the key fertilizer ingredient. As phosphorous prices rise and supplies tighten, you can expect nations with reserves to impose high prices--or even, as China did, hoard supplies.
One additional problem that neither Foreign Policy or Der Spiegel mention: phosphorous mining, at least in Florida, is an ecologically devastating process that leaves behind, um ... radioactive waste. I wrote a post on this very topic back in 2008. Get this:
For every ton of raw fertilizer produced, the industry generates five tons of phosphogypsum, a radioactive material the U.S. Environmental Agency considers hazardous waste. With limited options available, the phosphate industry is storing more than a billion tons of phosphogypsum in stacks that tower up to 200 feet high -- a problem that grows by 30 million tons every year.
You really should read that post. It's all about the environmental nightmare of phosphate mining; and the EPA's sad inability to enforce even its own lax standards around it. There's some good ol' fashioned political cronyism in there, too. And a huge Cargill angle!
So what to do? Of course, I would call for a shift to organic farming--organized efforts to conserve and recycle nutrients through composting programs. Subsidies could be reconfigured to reward farmers for reducing fertilizer use (they are now rewarded for gross output--giving them incentive to overapply fertilizer to maximize yields); municipalities and regions could ramp up composting programs and find efficient ways to get that compost back to farms.