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Peak phosphorus still a threat to food security, despite new report

Researchers investigating a coming peak in world phosphorous production have urged caution on the revising up of estimates of reserves in a new report.

The long-awaited estimates of World Phosphate Reserves & Resources, recently released by the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), suggests the availability of more mega tonnes of phosphate rock in the ground than previously thought.

However, researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at the University of Technology, Sydney, who last year published the controversial peak phosphorus estimate (between 2030 and 2040) in the journal Global Environmental Change, warned that the inflated IFDC figures should be interpreted with great caution.

"There is no dispute today regarding the essentiality and non-substitutability of phosphorus for food production, and while the report recognises the 'dire consequences' of peak phosphorus for global food production, it concludes that hundreds of years of sufficient phosphate remain and hence there is no immediate threat," said ISF Director, Professor Stuart White.

"We welcome the new report, however this should not be interpreted by policy makers as an excuse for non-action – the new figure represents an estimate of phosphate in the ground that is of markedly lower quality, more difficult to access and more costly.

"At best, this shifts the peak several decades, but even then it is unclear how reliable the new estimate of 60 billion tonnes of phosphate rock actually is.

"This new report has effectively increased the estimated reserves of phosphate rock in Morocco's control from about 6 billion tonnes to 50 billion tonnes. However the report's author acknowledges that 'there is no data to assess mining costs' in Morocco and stresses this is 'just a preliminary estimate' based on secondary data.

"Neither Moroccan mining companies nor Chinese companies (who control the second largest phosphate reserves after Morocco) provide any of their commercial data."

Professor White further cautioned that estimating the lifetime of reserves based only on what is in the ground can be seriously inaccurate and misleading. "There is a large discrepancy between the mega tonnes in the ground and mega tonnes that will actually be available and accessible to farmers to put on fields to grow crops," he said.

"From a food security perspective, it is no use saying there are millions of tonnes in the ground when they might be too costly and difficult to extract, and most of the world's farmers might not be able to afford them."

White's colleague and co-founder of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI), Dr Dana Cordell, explained, "The new figures do not change the underlying problem: we are shifting to an irreversible situation where the world's remaining reserves will contain less phosphorus, more contaminants, be more difficult to access or in environmental and culturally sensitive areas, require more energy and costs to extract and process, and will generate more waste."

"Meanwhile, we still have a chronic situation where one sixth of humanity is starving, many of them poor farmers with phosphorus-deficient soils who are unable to access fertilizer markets. Not to mention a global epidemic of eutrophication and 'dead zones' due to phosphorus pollution. I think this is enough of a reason to reconsider the way we currently manage phosphorus to produce food," she said.

The peak phosphorus analysis that White and his team have applied to phosphate rock takes into account the imminent economic and energy-related bottlenecks that apply to extracting non-renewable resources.

"Peak phosphorus is often highly misunderstood as the 'year we will run out of phosphorus'," White said. "The peak actually refers to the point in time when production will no longer be able to keep up with demand due to economic and energy constraints. Whilst the exact timeline is uncertain, this will happen much sooner than the time when all the reserves have been depleted."

White and Cordell warn that phosphate importing regions such as the European Union, Australia and sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford to rely so heavily on a critical resource for food production that will likely be subject to increasingly geopolitical tensions and volatile prices. "Eighty-five percent of the world's remaining reserves are controlled by just five countries. In 2008 we saw the price of phosphate rock spike 800% - this could happen again," White said.

Cordell said, "No governments have a plan for securing sufficient access to phosphorus for producing food in the long-term. Whatever the exact year, it is clear we need to start taking action now. This means investing in renewable phosphorus fertilisers (by recovering and reusing phosphorus from our excreta, manure and food waste) and increasing the efficiency of phosphorus use from mining to fertilizer application to food processing."

The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative was set up in 2008 by Cordell and White at the Institute for Sustainable Futures and their colleagues at Sweden's Linköping University to facilitate research and policy debate on phosphorus scarcity and sustainable solutions.

Wageningen University in The Netherlands, The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in Sweden and the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada and have also joined the GPRI recognising the urgent need for more research into the issue.

The GPRI has released a formal statement in response to the IFDC report, which is available for download.

Further information:
Professor Stuart White, +61 417 230 104 or Stuart.White@uts.edu.au
Dana Cordell, Dana.Cordell@uts.edu.au

Issued by: Terry Clinton, UTS Media Office,
Ph (02) 9514 1623 or 0419 293 261

Editorial Notes: Press release from the University of Technology Sydney. Peak phosphorus has not received the attention of peak oil, but it is just as important in its own way. We've been covering it over the years. Search on "phosphorus" on this site for background information. For the details behind this particular news article, see the recently released: GPRI Statement on Global Phosphorus Scarcity (PDF) UPDATE (Sept 28). Dr. Dana Crodell of GPRI writes:
Norwegian Television did a documentary on peak oil and peak phosphorus a few months ago. I asked the producer to include english subtitles for the international audience - which he did and posted at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzxowdYh22U (However this is only for the peak phosphorus component, not oil unfortunately).

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