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Doomsday: Will Peak Phosphate Get us Before Global Warming?

Although climate change catches the headlines, it is not the only doomsday scenario out there. A smaller but no less fervent band of worriers think that peak phosphate—a catastrophic decline in output of an essential fertilizer—will get us first.

One of the worriers is Jeremy Grantham of the global investment management firm GMO. Grantham foresees a coming crash of the earth’s population from a projected 10 billion to no more than 1.5 billion. He thinks the rest of humanity will starve to death because we are running out of phosphate fertilizer.  This post on Business Insider from late last year provides an array of alarming charts to back up his warning.

Foreign Policy agrees that phosphate shortages are a potential threat. “If we fail to meet this challenge,” write contributors James Elser and Stuart White, “humanity faces a Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced. The geopolitical impacts of such disruptions will be severe, as an increasing number of states fail to provide their citizens with a sufficient food supply.”

What is going on here? Is this really “the biggest problem we’ve never heard of,” as Elser puts it? Or are phosphate shortages something that global markets can cope with? Let’s take a closer look.

Why we need phosphates and why we are trouble if they run out

The element phosphorus is as essential to life as carbon or oxygen. It forms part of the structure of cell walls and DNA without which no plant or animal can exist. Phosphates are phosphorus in chemical forms that are available to plants. Some phosphates occur naturally in the soil as the result of weathering of rocks, but since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have added phosphate fertilizers to increase crop production. Manure, the traditional source, still accounts for about 15 percent of all phosphates used in agriculture, but since mid- twentieth century, most such fertilizer has come from phosphate rock.

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What we appear to be running out of are deposits of phosphate rock that can be mined at reasonable cost with today’s technology. Up to now, the United States has been a big producer, but its reserves are declining. China has a lot, but its domestic use is soaring and it is not a big exporter. North Africa has the biggest reserves, but some of them are in politically unstable regions like the Western Sahara.

The following widely reproduced diagram from a 2009 paper in Global Environmental Change depicts the peak phosphorus hypothesis in the form of a “Hubbert curve” that shows production declining at an accelerating rate after hitting a maximum around 2035. After that, say peak phosphate proponents, we are in big trouble.

Peak Phosphorus

Can the market save us?

Yes, a shortage of phosphates could spell trouble, but don’t forget about markets. Adjusting to shortages is just what markets are for. As economists see it, depleting a resource like phosphate rock is supposed to cause its price to rise. As the price rises, two things are supposed to happen. First, users are supposed to figure out ways to get by with less, and second, producers are supposed to find new sources of supply. Will this happen in the case of phosphates, or do they have unique properties that will prevent markets from working their magic?

Some think the latter. For example, the authors of the peak phosphorus diagram write that

a key difference between peak oil and peak phosphorus, is that oil can be replaced with other forms of energy once it becomes too scarce. But there is no substitute for phosphorus in food production. It cannot be produced or synthesized in a laboratory. Quite simply, without phosphorus, we cannot produce food.

Fortunately, the biological impossibility of substituting some other element for phosphorus in food production is not enough to thwart the operation of supply and demand in the phosphate market. One sign that the market is working is that phosphate prices are already rising. As the following chart shows, the U.S. prices of two of the most commonly used phosphate fertilizers soared in the early 2000s. Along with the prices of many other commodities, they dropped back from their peaks after the global financial crisis, but they are heading up again as the economy recovers.

Phosphate Fertilizers

The price increases have already had an impact on phosphate use. As the next chart shows, despite rising farm output, the growth rate of phosphate fertilizer use has slowed over time. The question for the future is whether it is technically feasible to increase food output further while actually reducing phosphate use.

Phosphate Use

Experts appear to think the answer is yes. A report published in Environmental Research Letters estimates that improvements in farm management practices and consumer waste could cut the phosphates needed to produce the present U.S. farm output by half, even with today’s technologies. In the future, even greater reductions may be possible. According to Roberto Gaxiola of Arizona State University, generations of phosphate fertilizer use have reduced the efficiency of phosphorus uptake by domesticated crop plants. His experiments indicate that selective breeding and genetic engineering can produce plants that can flourish with much lower phosphorus use.

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There are significant developments on the supply side, as well. Michael Mew of the Fertecon Research Center notes that producers are already learning how to upgrade lower quality phosphate rock reserves and are modifying processing plants to accept lower quality inputs. Also, he notes that increasing vertical integration of the industry has resulted in a reduction in transportation costs. Those cost savings slow the rate of price increase and give more time for supply and demand to adjust.

Furthermore, although it is true that we cannot create or synthesize phosphorus, we can recover useable phosphorus from waste streams, including urban sewage. As this source explains, existing systems already remove phosphorus from sewage in order to preserve water quality in the rivers and streams into which they discharge treated waste. Given the low prices for phosphate that prevailed until recently, it did not pay to recover that phosphorus in usable forms. Much of it has ended up as sludge buried in landfills. However, several methods could recover a high percentage of the phosphorus from wastewater. At some price, doing so will become a profitable alternative to producing phosphate fertilizers from increasingly low-grade phosphate rock. It may even become worthwhile to mine phosphate from sewage sludge buried in old landfills.

The bottom line

The problems posed by depletion of finite supplies of high-grade phosphate rock are not trivial. However, it is highly misleading to forecast a sharp peak of phosphate fertilizer production in the near future, let alone to predict that mass starvation and population collapse lie on the downslope of the curve. The fact that there are no substitutes for phosphorus when it comes to building DNA or cell walls does not mean that markets are incapable of managing increasing scarcity.

What does seem likely is a period of continued high or rising phosphate prices, which will trigger three reactions. First, higher prices will make it economical to process ever-lower grades of phosphate rock. Second, they will spur changes in farm management and development of improved crop varieties; these in turn will accelerate incipient trends toward increased food output per unit of phosphate input. Third, higher prices will provide incentives for improved recycling of phosphorus from waste streams.

Putting all this together, Michael Mew dismisses the peak phosphate hypothesis. Instead, he foresees a phosphate plateau as higher prices cause historical growth rates to level off gradually.

Phosphate Produstion

Such a phosphate plateau does not preclude the need for changes in how people live and eat. It could well mean the relative price of food will rise over time, something that could cause hardship for many of the world’s poor. Furthermore, the price of phosphorus-intensive meat is likely to rise relative to those of other foods, making it unrealistic for the world’s emergent middle classes ever to attain the kind of meat-rich diet to which residents of today’s wealthy countries have become accustomed—a diet that, in the age of obesity,  is sometimes less of a blessing than a curse.

When all is said and done, a plateau is not a cliff. There is no phosphate doomsday on the horizon.

By. Ed Dolan

Follow this link to view or download a slideshow version of this post, suitable for classroom use.

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  • sharonsj on July 23 2013 said:
    There are things other than mined phosphates which can enrich the soil. Check out an old book called "Secrets of the Soil," which explains former and primitive technologies that work.
  • Fairchilde on July 23 2013 said:
    The combination of more efficient agricultural use of phosphorus, and more economical mining of seabed phosphorus -- unlimited in supply for all practical purposes -- makes it unlikely that humans will run low on the mineral for many centuries.

    Large scale seabed mining is inevitable, for a wide range of minerals including hydrocarbons. The trick will be making sure it is done responsibly.

    The best thing Greens could do is to embrace the new age of mineral exploration and exploitation, and to become a part of it so that they can make sure that the resilient living environment can cleanly take over the mining sites, once humans move on. Modern obstructionism by Greens against nuclear, fracking, clean coal, sea mining etc. only makes sure that the mining will ultimately be done more hastily and sloppily, in the context of widespread human suffering and unstoppable political expediency.
  • Michael Hansen on July 23 2013 said:
    This is strange to me. Where does all of the phosphate that has been used go to? As an element it isn't disappearing. My suspicion is much of it is in human waste. Should recover it from waste treatment plants. It has to be somewhere, and there is where you get it. Seems simple to me somehow.
  • Steven In Dallas on July 26 2013 said:
    >> Where does all of the phosphate that has been used go to? As an element it isn't disappearing.

    Entropy. It goes from locations with concentrations great enough to be worth "mining", to distributed locations where it is so diluted that it is no longer extractable.
  • Durwood Dugger on November 30 2013 said:
    The article and its referenced phosphate rock production plateau analysis are unfortunately naive and flawed by their gross over simplification of phosphate's complex economics. Phosphate ore quality varies to a great degree with regard to the kinds of impurities it carries. Much of the world's phosphate deposits are contaminated with natural uranium and other heavy metals making them toxic and increasing processing costs - making much of the global phosphate "reserves" often uneconomical to process and use. So the question of the quality of global phosphate reserve estimates is a primary issue of concern.

    Consider that the USGS phosphate global reserve estimates of 300 years is based solely on those reserve estimates contained in the asset balance sheets of fertilizer companies and phosphate mining host countries' balance sheets, not from independently verified ground proven qualitative and quantitative analysis. The obvious motivation to inflate primary asset reserves to bolster credit ratings is rather obvious for both companies and countries and makes the USGS phosphate reserve estimates highly questionable.

    Beyond these questionable global reserve estimates there is the absolute dependence of phosphate mining and ore processing on petroleum and petrochemicals. Without large amounts of petrochemicals - rock phosphate ore can't be transformed into bioavailable phosphorous fertilizer. Scientist like Dr. Dana Cordell (http://liu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:291760) who have done detailed studies of global petroleum and phosphate reserves think that both oil and phosphates will reach critical economic feasibility limits in less than 30 years - not 300. The confluence of the economic impacts of both peak oil and peak phosphates are far more dangerous than either one alone. The danger comes from the chaos caused by rapid global food price increases. Remember the 2008 food crisis riots caused by the biofuel demand - oil/fertilizer/food price increases? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007–08_world_food_price_crisis)

    Regarding recycling of phosphates: It's a good and necessary idea, but as yet the economics aren't there on a commodity pricing basis and even if they were, it has been estimated that if we recycled all the world's sewage and CAFO wastes we would offset less than 3.0% of our current rock phosphate demand. So, while recycling phosphates helps the environment, it isn't a solution to peak phosphate impacts.

    Regarding deep sea mining: It's true there are significant phosphate deposits on the deep ocean floor. However, there have been efforts for commodity mineral mining on-going for the past 30 years and none have succeeded economically. The economics are such that only gold and diamonds are successfully ocean mined. Consider the basic economics - gold sells for $1200-1800/oz. and phosphates sell for $800/per ton. Can you see that cost gap being spanned in the age of peak petroleum? I can't unless there is a sudden development for essentially free energy. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_sea_mining)

    China has one of the world's largest phosphate reserves and in 2008 they effectively began stopping all export of their phosphates. In 2011 the World Trade Organization on the threat of stopping Chinese exports to their member countries forced China to once again export phosphates. Nothing grows without adequate phosphorus and this sets the stage for phosphorus being a primary resource weapon.

    Did I mention that in 2011 and 2012 the US imported more than half of its NPK components and that 16% of our phosphates came from Morocco and Western Sahara? The significance of this is the US obsession for foreign energy independence - while we are oblivious to our growing foreign fertilizer/food dependence. (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/fertilizer-importsexports/summary-of-the-data-findings.aspx#.UpoWG41Q0QI)
  • Greg on June 04 2014 said:
    sharonsj on July 23 2013 said:
    There are things other than mined phosphates which can enrich the soil. Check out an old book called "Secrets of the Soil," which explains former and primitive technologies that work.

    LOL on a scale big enough to feed 7 Billion. Reading too many fairy tales?
  • Fuser on October 18 2014 said:
    Quite a few intelligent comments which is refreshing. My observations:

    The supply figures are quite imprecise, both on quality and in places where statistics really lie.
    Also the logistics of land locked resources add significantly to the FOB cost, notwithstanding the relative production cost for multiple reasons.

    The seabed resources are likewise questionable based on their location. The recent projects are all questionable, except for the Don Diego resource off of the southern Baja California Pacific coast. No one had bothered to invest in a drilling program that has found a vast seam located just off an ancient coast line. Not dissimilar to the Bayovar deposits, but likely more economical to extract as a sand dredging project and early reports of high quality.

    All this eventually just buys time. The unexploded land mine is in the Moroccan weak link between the mine and production facilities. The 150 km logistical link is fragile given the dangerous part of the world in which it exists. Any single planting season (north or south) is at risk of a rupture of this supply, with attendant dire food supply consequences.

    Technology may produce alternatives some day, but certainly the price to justify the investment will make food production more costly. The best way to reduce demand will be to move away from beef production and focus meat protein in developing middle class diets with white meats.
  • Daniel Gless on December 14 2014 said:
    One of the largest and most pure phosphate deposits in the world lies beneath central Lower Michigan. Price being what it is Mosaic just sold their holdings though. It also has adjacent salt on this site and the new buyer will be mostly a salt producer. They want rails relaid to the area for shipping. The area is around Reed City/Hersey Michigan.
    Allow me to go googleing and find some more information.
  • Daniel Gless on December 14 2014 said:
    Sorry, the thing I was thinking of in Central Michigan is potash, potassium chloride...http://www.grbj.com/articles/77875-potash-a-gold-mine-for-michigan
    But we have a LOT OF IT and its very pure....
    Sorry bout that.
  • Steven in Dallas on March 28 2016 said:
    >> Or are phosphate shortages something that global markets can cope with?

    This blind faith in the invisible hand is very much like the blind faith that a lemming has that the lemming in front of him knows where he is going. One can say that the market mechanism ALWAYS works...until it doesn't, and the physical laws of the universe don't care much about our (voodoo) economic theory.

    One of the components of the "Peak X" theory (peak whatever) is that you will likely never run flat out of something ... but that the cost of production will no longer yield a positive return. When the last oil, or the last phosphates, etc., cost so much to harvest that no company chooses to pursue it, then you are de facto "out of it".

    I don't know why people continually respond to the problems of over-population by trying to support over-population. Why isn't the message of this article that we need to control our population?

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