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Peak phosphorus and food security: time to fact-check



05/22/2020

In 2007, Patrick Dery, an analyst from Quebec, sent his paper on phosphate reserves to Energy Bulletin’s reporter and technical writer, Bart Anderson. Soon after, ‘Peak Phosphorus’ was received by the wider scientific community. The collaborators suggested that the world would soon be going hungry. Yet another apocalyptic scenario for the public to swallow: there was just one question – was it true?


Phosphate Rock

© Ingimage
© Ingimage
Phosphorus is a natural material which has been used in fertilisers as well as in pharmaceuticals, animal feeds and other uses, around the world since the middle of the nineteenth century. Plants need phosphorus for growth. Through farming, fertile land becomes exhausted. Phosphate fetilisers rejuvenate soil’s capacity to support crops.

Phosphate rock is mined, and phosphorus is extracted from this process. Phosphates are a limited resource, and as a result, were we to run out, the global capacity for food production would be seriously compromised.

The premise

The basic idea that Dery and Anderson used is a genuine scientific approach, developed by Marion King Hubbert in 1982, for the assessment of crude oil reserves. The logic follows that, as oil is a finite resource, and phosphorus is also finite, the transfer of methodology is justified.

What they first predicted  was that the peak global production of phosphorus had already passed. This would mean that availability of phosphorus would continue to decline, putting strain on food production and leading to dangerous shortages in supply. This, of course, would be problematic. 

Technical problems

However, shortly after their initial prediction, proponents of this theory were forced to adjust their numbers. Now, apparently the critical year will be 2033. Just as with oil, the date has moved repeatedly.

In the 1980s, a short-lived decline in phosphate production did occur, but this was concurrent with the fall of the USSR. Furthermore, peaks and falls occur even during overall growth trends – a jagged line can still plot an upward trajectory over time.

In 1989 global production was recorded at 200.5 MMt. More recent projection figures  by the International Fertilizer Association (IFA) for production in 2021 are around 270 MMt.

Critics of the Peak Phosphorus thesis highlight one glaring issue with the science: notably, Roland Scholz, a professor in environmental systems science at ETH Zurich, a mathematician contributing to risk assessment, game theory, and decision making under uncertainty.
Scholz argues  that the soon-to-occur predictions  contain serious flaws.

He and his partner, Friedrich-Wilhelm Wellmer, propose that the static Hubbert model does not work because it depends on certain fixed conditions to function.

Firstly, that reserves be limited and known. Scholz argues that data on phosphate reserves is less solid than the equivalents in crude oil research, and therefore, that we do not know the global phosphate reserves accurately enough to make predictions within a linear model.

Secondly, the rate at which we will consume phosphorus as a resource is not known either. While demand will climb with population growth, there are other factors which will lead to more efficient and rational use of phosphorus, in particular through improved nutrient management techniques applied by farmers.

New discoveries of reserves will be supported by advances in technology that make locating phosphates easier. Just as in the oil industry exploration has evolved, so too will phosphate location.  Currently, estimates of the world resources of phosphate rock identified by the U.S. Geological Survey stand at 300 billion tons, sufficient for over 1,100 years at the world’s current consumption rate.

Added to this, lower quality reserves will become practical through improved refinement processes, and rock once uneconomical to mine will become viable with advanced extraction techniques. There are also plans unfolding for extraction of offshore phosphate sources, which could break ground for future possibilities.

Scholz and his colleagues propose that a far more nuanced, multi-faceted model must be developed, taking into account the full range of factors such as scarcity of resources, social obstacles, societal motivation/prioritisation, etc., to be able to make serious predictions.
Less exciting but more plausible, Michael Mew proposes a Phosphorus Plateau. Mew believes that a more likely outcome is that eventually, as supply becomes tighter and prices increase, market forces will drive further improvements both in extraction and in farming techniques.

Along with improvements in mining technology, recycling, and efficiency, spurred by higher phosphate prices, we will see a sustained period of flat production levels. He expects that this impetus will lead to innovations in crop varieties and agricultural approaches, reducing the amount of phosphate required to produce the same quantity of food. There will be a peak, but afterwards production will remain steady.

Food security

After reviewing the facts, it has become clear that phosphate reserves will last at least several hundred years. Along with improvements in industrial phosphate extraction, advances in fertiliser specificity, sustainable resource management and product recycling, will all contribute to more efficient use of phosphorus.

Jim Orson, an expert on crop production, perceives the alarm calls coming from those outside the industry to be lacking in factual substance. Like Scholz and his colleagues, Orson suggests  that concerns have been proven to be unfounded.

“It is true that the mining companies have approximately 30 years of declared reserves in their accounts but the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are at least 1,500 years of phosphate reserves to meet current demand.”

He points the figure at players in the food industry who have something to gain by incriminating fertilisers and, in particular, organic product producers.

Humanity has genuine impending, existential threats that must be handled in the near future. Creating or exaggerating scenarios actually harms our chances of success by drawing intellectual and financial resources away from issues of more pressing concern. Scholz and his colleagues, in particular, urge experts and specialists to be transparent about the levels of accuracy represented by their models, as undue public panic is mostly counterproductive and sometimes even dangerous.





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