Bærer vitne om urettferdighet
Most of us, most days, will eat some food grown on phosphorus – a natural mineral returned to agricultural land through the application of animal manure and human excreta. Without this mineral the world would starve, as it is one of the building blocks of all life. Every living cell requires it to survive. It is the most critical natural resource to the world’s food production, and one of the three key components of all fertilizers.
Just like oil, phosphorus cannot be replaced or artificially manufactured. It can only be recycled thorough the application of organic matter. However, since urban areas started to use flush toilets, phosphorus was no longer returned to the soil, but washed out into water systems. The use of the local organic matter was then replaced by phosphate rock, which has to be mined or drilled out from the deep soil.
According to Petter Jensen, professor at the University of Biotechnology and Environment in Oslo, phosphorus will soon be rare and valuable resource. He has been analysing phosphorous production for more than twenty years, and concluded that based on the data available, it is clear that the alarm bells should be ringing.
“At present consumption rates world reserves of phosphorus will be depleted within a century, as mining phosphate rock for fertilizer is consuming the mineral faster than geologic cycles can replenish it” Jensen said.
Estimates before we reach “peak phosphorus” range from 30 to 100 years, but at current rates of extraction, most studies indicate that phosphate production will peak around 2030, after which, demand will exceed supply. According to the US Geological Survey, the US will deplete its reserves within 30 years, while global reserves will start to run out within 75–100 years.
However, as we know from peak oil analysis, trouble begins not when we run out of a resource, but when production peaks. From that point onward, the resource becomes more difficult to extract and more expensive.
“The potential implications of ‘peak phosphorous’ make peak oil sound like a back-bencher in the End of Civilization tournament” Jensen said. While oil can be replaced as a source of energy — by nuclear, wind or solar — there is no alternative to phosphorus.
As phosphorous declines, the impacts will be immense, including less farm output, higher food prices, growing food insecurity, and escalating social and economic challenges for which the world is unprepared.
Although phosphorous rock can be found in several countries, the only commercially recoverable reserves are located in China, the US and Morocco. As China imposed a 135 per cent tariff on exports from 2008, and US stopped exporting any phosphate rock in 2004, phosphorus from Morocco is the major source on the world market.
Currently Morocco — the “Saudi Arabia of phosphorus”— controls as much as 37 per percent of global phosphorus reserves. Since governments begun to safeguard its own supplies, about half of the industry is under some type of state or subsidy control. Europe, which has almost no reserves of its own, is dependent on imports from a quartel of companies in the US or Morocco to satisfy its growing demand. This situation makes especially the Euro Zone vulnerable to volatility in the market.
Consequently Swedish researchers have proclaimed that the global economy could flip from one being concentrated around the ownership of oil reserves to one about phosphate reserves.
According to Emma Hockridge from the Soil Assosiation in the UK, the geopolitical realities of the sources of phosphate rock, add a further level of uncertainty in securing future phosphate supplies.
“Morocco has almost unliited control of the world’s known phosphate rock reserves and markets, something which is disturbing when you think about the instability in the country” Hockridge said.
Also John Heinrich, Specialist in International Trade, is concerned over the possible implications phosphorus trade might have in the region, in 2011 he stated that:“phosphorous is a geostrategic ticking time bomb”.
Morocco’s largest reserves of phosphate are in fact situated outside Morocco, in the middle of the desert in Western Sahara. This is an occupied territory that is internationally recognized as a sovereign country, but which has been effectively, and illegally, occupied by Morocco since 1975.
Morocco has kept the control over the occupied areas — which contains all of the phosphorous mines — by force for more than 40 years. The local population, the Saharawies, have become a deprived minority, often abused in various ways by the Moroccan authorities, and forcibly evicted to flee to refugee camps in Algeria.
Heinrich explained that the areas around the mines are limited to the east by a 2200km long wall, which at the moment is one of the areas in the world with the most landmines. “This wall prevents the Saharawi from crossing back into their lands from the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria and avoids any contact between the population of the occupied Western Sahara and Morocco” Heinrich added.
The 2010 report from Human Rights Watch stated that the Western Sahara conflict has resulted in severe human rights abuses, most notably the displacement of tens of thousands of Sahrawi civilians, the expulsion of tens of thousands of Moroccan civilians, and numerous casualties of war and repression.
Due to the disputed nature of sovereignty over the territory, the UN Legal Department stated in 2002 that: “Any further trade in the Western Sahara would be in violation of international law unless the local people are consulted”.
In 2011 another report was issued after more than 16 months of research, fact gathering and analysis. It concluded that: “Any administering power that deprives the colonial peoples of Non-Self-Governing territories their legitimate rights over their natural resources, violates the solemn obligations it has assumed under the Charter of the United Nations.”
The report further pointed out that: “The use of phosphates extracted from the Bou Craa mines in Western Sahara, may be in violation of international law”.
As a result, in June 2010 at least six Scandinavian investors divested from international fertilizer firms importing from the occupied territory. The five companies were listed as: Innophos, Potash Corp, Wesfarmers, FMC and Incitec Pivot. The reason from the investors presented being that the:” Import of natural resources was sourced in conflict with human rights norms.”
However, Gearbulk — a UK Company registered on Bermuda with headquarters in South East England — is still involved in trade with Western Sahara. As of June 2008, it had transported more than 200,000 million US dollars worth of phosphates from Western Sahara to Australia, and then back to the UK.
On June 20, 2008, 29 parliamentarians — including Jill Evans, Jean Lambert, and Alyn Smith from the UK— demanded that Gearbulk’s Western Sahara shipments had to stop. The company has to this day not replied to the letter.
“Other people by and sell the phosphates. We only transport it.” Kristian Jebsen Gearbulk chairman said, in a documentary broadcasted on Norwegian television in November 2008.
Neither the big fertilizer company Yara, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), or the British Consul of UK Trade and Investment in Morocco, could say how much phosphorous the UK imports from Morocco, or which companies that were involved in the import from Western Sahara, claiming that they were “unable to give such information, because the way official statistics are broken down makes it impossible to give this sort of detail”.
Nevertheless, the Soil Association says that most of the phosphate imported to the UK actually has to come from Morocco, either directly from the mines in Western Sahara, or through the US, which currently gets 99 per cent of its own phosphorous from Morocco.
“England is dependent on illegal import of phosphorous from Western Sahara” Heinrich said, and concluded that governments are shying away from this topic, because it raises some very difficult issues about corporate social responsibility and respect for human rights.
However, changes in the market and new investment trends worldwide prove that there is little the governments can do to keep this worldwide issue a secret.
Since the beginning of the Green Revolution, the use of phosphate fertilizers has increased from 9 million tons per year in 1960 to 40 millions in 2000, and a stunning 170 millions in 2011. The price of phosphorus has started to yo-yo alarmingly since 2001, with costs spiking to a 900 per cent rise in phosphate rock spot prices in 2008.
Over the last ten years, trade between the Kingdom of Morocco and the United Kingdom has increased threefold from 1996 to 2006 and passed 1 billion pounds during 2008. One of the biggest exports into the UK is phosphoric acid, fertilizers and chemicals.
According to Ottar Nakken, Commercial Vice President in Nordic Mining ASA, the global market for phosphates is forecast to reach 68.7 million metric tons by the year 2015. The growth is largely attributed to burgeoning population and growing demand in developing countries because of change in income and diets as well as limited arable land. Demand for greater crop production is also forecasted to lead to a spurt in the popularity of phosphate fertilizers.
Consequently, countries, investors and exploration companies are desperately looking for new and alternative sources under the sea and in other countries. The Australian Wonorrah project is looking 200 meters deep and 60km off the Namibian coast, while another mining company, Widespread Portfolios (WD), is looking off the New Zealand coast, at Chatham Rise.
Ottar Nakken, explained that there is great options for retail investors to ride the upside in the coming agriculture bull market by investing in specific fertilizer/ phosphate rock companies.“I expect the demand of phosphate rock to be constant and rising as long as global demand for of biofuels and phosphate fertilizers is still growing at a steady pace” he said.
A forecast from the Commodities Research Unit (CRU) also show that future prices of phosphate rock will increase well above historical levels and high enough to build the new mining capacity.
As a rapidly growing population increases the global demand for food, the need for fertilizer is also further heightening. “There’s no reason to believe the world is going on a collective diet any time soon to ease food consumption, and consequently investment in phosphorus is a pretty safe way to make a forune” Nakken concluded.
The potential of investment in phosphour — not only to earn money, but also to save the world from starvation — is something Louise Vet, Professor in Evolutionary Ecology has been working on for a decade. “Sooner or later phosphorous famine is going to be a public debate and people are going to look for alternative sources” Louise Vet said.
Personally she believes the scientific community can provide some innovative solutions. “Recycling of phosphorus from human waste is already in use many places” Vet said and explained that in the UK treated sewage sludge from Thames Water is recycled as a fertilizer on farmland.
It provides soils with a valuable source of organic matter and nutrients, and is used to grow the cereals that the people of Britain eat for breakfast every day.
Vet is currently trying to develop a system that collects the phosphorous directly from human urine and faeces. To harvest this resource, Sweden has already rolled out special urine-diverting toilets, which use a partitioned bowl to send urine to storage tanks for phosphorus recovery.
If we are to deal with these vital issues touching at the heart of humanity and human rights there is a clear need for innovation as well as information and capacity building to meet these needs.
Jensen said: “If we don’t start to conserve phosphorous now, food production in the future will collapse. We can easily avoid both famine and conflict if we change before it is too late. Scientists have done their job, now it is up to the politicians to act”.
So what is the likelihood of retrofitting 25 million homes in the UK to store urine? At the moment, pretty low. But who knows how desperate we’ll get in the future? To be straightforward we are already eating sewage sludge for breakfast.