2nd February 2017
By now you are surely aware of the threat of climate change, rising sea levels, mass extinction and the destruction of tropical rainforests, but you probably haven’t heard of phosphorus depletion.
The fact you’ve never heard of phosphorus depletion, by no means makes it less important than the flurry of other environmental concerns. However, it is given almost no attention by the media or environmental advocates.
Phosphorus is a chemical element which plays a vital role in all life. It is an important component of biological structures, from your bones to your DNA and has an important role in many of the chemical reactions in your body. In fact, phosphorus is so important it makes up 1% of your body weight.
Humans have long recognised the importance of soil fertility in agriculture. For thousands of years, stretching back as far as the Egyptians, farmers have practiced various techniques to improve crop growth by improving the health of the soil. However, it is only in recent times our unhealthy addiction to chemical fertilisers proliferated.
During the first half of the 20th century farmers began to realise spreading phosphate rich substances on their land dramatically improved crop growth. Soon after, during the1950s, commercial extraction of rock phosphate and production of phosphate fertilisers began. Demand for chemical fertilisers has boomed over the last half century as farmers and society embrace improvements in crop growth and resulting cheap food prices.
You might ask, why is phosphorus a concern? Well, chemical phosphate fertilisers, now an embedded part of modern agriculture, are produced exclusively from raw rock phosphate mined from the ground in the same way as coal. But unlike coal, rock phosphate is rare and can only be found in any significant quantity in a handful of countries; the United States, China, Morocco, Western Sahara and Russia.
Rock phosphate is a finite resource and it’s running out. Currently, we are extracting reserves at an unprecedented rate. In 2015, 223 million tonnes were mined globally and according to experts this figure is set to rise to 255 million tonnes by 2019. Predicting when rock phosphate reserves will run out is tricky business and estimations differ drastically depending on what factors are taken into account and who you ask! According to the United States Geological Survey we have somewhere in the region of 125 years worth of reserves left. Alarmingly, the FAO and others believe we are far closer to running out.
Today the global population stands at 7.5 billion people and we know this number will continue to grow. It is expected that by 2050 there could be 9 billion people on the planet. Food production will need to increase, no doubt driving our demand for phosphate further and accelerate its depletion.
If nothing is to be done and we rumble on oblivious to our abuse of this precious and finite resource, there is surely trouble ahead.
Rock phosphate reserves are virtually non existent in Europe. Ireland and the rest of the EU rely almost exclusively on exports for the big producing countries . This situation leaves us in an extraordinarily vulnerable position in the face of phosphate depletion.
In the future, as global reserves begin to diminish, large exporters like Morocco will most likely push up prices of this raw material which our agriculture system so heavily relies on. This in turn will lead to higher cost of fertilisers and thus higher food prices.
We’ve already seen the effect of higher phosphate prices. In 2008, the price of rock phosphate on the global market spiked by 800%, leading to drastic increased in the price of fertilisers. Food prices that year led to rioting in over 40 countries. Is this what the future looks like for Ireland and the rest of the world?
If our current agricultural model continues, global hysteria caused by food shortages and famine in the face of dwindling harvest sizes and rising food prices are a very real prospect. This may sound like a pitch for a doomsday movie, but worryingly it’s true.