Phosphorus: a powdery maroon substance used in producing everything from baking powder to steels to fertilizer. Surprisingly, stocks of phosphorus are declining. The international community faces so many insidious issues that phosphorus scarcity can seem trivial; however, dwindling phosphorus is indeed important to national security. One of the most important substances for global food production, phosphorus is crucial to sustainable population growth. Its scarcity must be addressed by the international community.
Used in many fertilizers, phosphorus enables higher food production from crops, which is important for feeding a rapidly growing world. Phosphorus has contributed to a global surplus of food that has fed millions. Unfortunately, phosphorus, like many other important resources such as water or energy, is limited. There is no replacement for phosphorus, and without its role in fertilizer, millions will go hungry.
Numerous global trends have caused the demand for phosphorus to increase at an unsustainable rate. Especially in developing regions, rapid population growth has led to increased phosphorus demand, with the rate of fertilizer including phosphorus increasing by over 600 percent from 1950 to 2000. In developed regions, on the other hand, the shift towards a diet of meat and cheese have also increased phosphorus demand, since meat and dairy contain a significant proportion of phosphorus. As a result, countries everywhere face rising demands for phosphorus, which has led to precarious markets.
Recently unfolding events have demonstrated the impacts of phosphorus’ increased demand. In 2008, world food prices skyrocketed, leading to the 2008 global food crisis. While there were many explanations for this phenomenon, ranging from oil price volatility to economic tariffs, the fact that there was a simultaneous rise of in phosphate prices did not go unnoticed. Though at first many were skeptical of a correlation, the international scientific community has strongly supported the relationship between these two trends.
In such scarcity, phosphorus especially impacts farmers from poor regions like India and landlocked regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. In poor regions, farmers are vulnerable to extreme price changes such as the recent phosphorus price crisis in 2008. In fact, in places such as India and Haiti, many farmers committed suicide while others rioted due to their disrupted livelihoods from the 2008 phosphorus price crisis. In landlocked regions, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, expensive transport as well as government corruption add significantly to phosphorus prices. It is unfortunate, since many of these countries rely upon agriculture for economic growth, further increasing their reliance on phosphate. Many of these countries are also undergoing rapid population growth, which cannot be sustained by such high phosphorus prices.
Though demand is increasing, phosphorus is an extremely rare resource and its supply may not be able to keep up. Phosphate rock is the difficult to extract and slow-forming product of millions of years, much like oil, and cannot be produced artificially. To make matters worse, phosphorus cannot be replaced by any known alternatives. It is uncertain exactly how much time that the international community has before phosphate runs out. However, as phosphate is continuously and increasingly harvested, the ability to easily harvest high-quality phosphorus is reduced. This is a phenomenon known as “peak phosphorus”, since at a certain point of time, phosphorus quality peaks and then is difficult to harvest afterwards. Even now, it takes enormous amounts of energy to obtain the same amounts of phosphate as before. Since phosphorus has a limited and quickly depleting availability and it saps precious energy, more sustainable and efficient methods of phosphorus harvest must be implemented.
It must also be noted how phosphorus can only be found in very specific locations, namely, Morocco, China, Algeria, and South Africa among a few others. As is the case with most resources of significance, when certain countries have a monopoly, it gives them major geopolitical power over other countries who need those imports. For example, the 2008 phosphorus price crisis was spurred in part due to China placing limits on phosphorus exports. This event demonstrates how countries are at the mercy of those who hold such a monopoly and, consequently, the balance of power has significantly been slanted towards them.
In countries such as Morocco, for instance, phosphorus lies in the Western Sahara, an area that Morocco claims to own; the international community refuses to acknowledge this territorial claim. Regardless of the legitimacy of the Moroccan claim, numerous companies import phosphate rock from this contested area, much to the dismay of neighboring countries. Moreover, the people who occupy the Western Sahara protest against the phosphorus extraction, stating that it violates their sovereignty. Though this may be a singular case, it demonstrates how the extreme need for phosphorus combined with little regulation has created an environment where illegal activity may flourish. Furthermore, the lack of regulation allows more opportunistic powers to enter weaker territories and take their resources, instigating oppression and deeper economic woes.
Phosphorus’ scarcity stems not only from its limited quantities, but it is also wasted during harvests. As much as four-fifths of phosphorus is wasted during production, from the moment it is mined to the final moments of processing. These losses can be minimized through greater efficiency and recycling waste, ensuring more sustainable levels of phosphorus use. Moreover, improving the efficiency of phosphorus extraction reduces phosphorus runoff into streams and oceans, which causes algal blooms that kill aquatic wildlife and hurt tourist industries and the environment. This algal bloom is costly, as well. The estimated annual cost in the United States alone reaches up to as high as $2.2 billion USD. More stringent monitoring of excess phosphorus waste during harvest will decrease phosphorus scarcity and environmental risks.
This raises the question – who is responsible for managing phosphorus, whether by following international norms or minimizing excessive waste? The answer, at the moment, is lost in a hectic mass of mining sectors, national governments, and agricultural industries. The trade and production data that exists on phosphorus is incomplete; indeed, the only data available is from the US Geological Survey, but even this data lacks outside verification from other organizations or countries. This is a clear and present problem, especially given that phosphorus is such a critical resource for future food sustainability. All lines involved in the production of phosphorus need to be held to more accountability, and more information regarding the phosphorus production process needs to be revealed to give a better picture of the status quo.
Luckily for the international community, the future is not as grim as it appears. There are a number of institutional changes that can be made to improve regulation and decrease waste. Outreach and advocacy measures, on the macro-level of the United Nations and giant media organizations as well as micro-level of grassroots movements and nonprofit organizations, can raise awareness of the seriousness of phosphorus. As these reforms and changes change the nature of institutions to become more sympathetic to phosphorus sustainability, the best practices and procedures of the international community can be more easily implemented.
One area that should be prioritized in reducing phosphorus is the smarter use of fertilizer. In most cases, farmers are unaware of how much fertilizer they need. For good reason – the amount of fertilizer a farmer may need is highly dependent on environmental conditions such as soil, temperature, and weather patterns. As a result, many farmers in developing countries are not able to accurately gauge their fertilizer requirements, leading to much waste. One example of this case can be found in a China Agriculture Survey on northern Chinese farmers. Since many of these farmers were never taught how much fertilizer they need, they tend to use about half of the fertilizer they put down. Thus, a valuable resource is wasted and becomes an environmental risk to water supplies, just because some people were never educated.
To combat this lack of information, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is putting together a task force to work together with local and state governments. It hopes to provide accessible information to farmers, emphasizing ideals of conservation and long-term sustainability of phosphorus. This task force is not unprecedented and draws inspiration from past successful initiatives. The University of Wisconsin, in concert with the Wisconsin government, put together a program called the Wisconsin phosphorus index, which helps farmers accurately predict how much phosphorus that they will need. By promoting past sustainable practices that have a track record of success, organizations like the United Nations will hopefully be able to increase awareness amongst local communities.
Another area that can be examined to increase phosphorus supply is recycling waste. In the past, farmers were able to sustain the quality of their soil largely through household waste. Even though animal manure is still widely used, human waste is also a valuable source of phosphorus. Instead of disposing of it as sewage, human waste has potential as an alternative fertilizer. Moreover, many countries across the world are undergoing intensive research to find innovative ways to efficiently recycle waste. It is important that the international scientific community communicates their findings to one another to promote the best long-term phosphorus recycling methods. Additionally, areas that might not be able to afford such advanced levels of technology need to receive assistance from NGOs and the United Nations. Since some of these recycling procedures are difficult to keep up without high development levels, countries must have access to at least rudimentary recycling processes. In this way, countries will be able to extend their current supplies of phosphorus.
Just as important in preserving phosphorus in the long term is having a tangible idea of the global phosphorus supply. As previously mentioned, the US Geological Survey currently gives us the best representation of how much phosphorus is left. However, a more effective way to describe the world phosphorus supply would be through an international organization such as the World Trade Organization. The World Trade Organization should work together with governments to foster the creation of a more comprehensive global database of phosphorus trade and supply. Indeed, this partnership should also yield information of new phosphorus mining areas, since many places need heavier examination by regional governments. Then, markets and research institutions will have more accurate information to act upon, creating a more sustainable phosphorus supply in the long run.
While there are numerous measures that can be implemented in order to promote more long-term phosphorus supply sustainability, they cannot be effective without cultural changes as well. Meat and dairy, for example, take up immense supplies of phosphorus, and yet people are consuming these products at unprecedented levels. Therefore, it is increasingly necessary to promote a plant-based diet to reduce the amount of phosphorus consumption. Other cultural changes can include speaking with local farmers in underdeveloped countries, explaining how phosphorus is an essential and limited resource that needs conservation. With these movements in place, major media outlets and nonprofit organizations should direct the focus of public energy. Of course, this will not be an overnight process, since cultural changes often take many more incremental, subtle steps. However, encouraging such a long-term paradigm shift while putting into place other specific strategies for improvement should maintain phosphorus supplies.
The world’s population is growing at an exponential rate, as technology has dramatically improved the standard of living. On the whole, more people have access to the necessary resources they need to live than ever before. Yet, there are still large swaths of populations who live in poor conditions. There is still work to be done in lifting every person to the basic standard of living that they each deserve. Phosphorus is not a silver bullet that will deliver such people. However, when phosphorus sustainability is considered in the grander scheme of things, it will have enormous benefits to everyone, regardless of where they live. It will improve international security, as those who have more access to phosphorus will not have such a monopoly on power. It will reap benefits for farmers who are able to support their livelihoods through affordable fertilization. And it will reap benefits for every individual, as the markets of phosphorus and agriculture become more stable over time.
Phosphorus is more than simply an element or powdery substance—it represents an opportunity for the international community to help itself and the most marginalized populations. In a vastly changing world, it has become an essential element for change.