The image of the phosphate economy. The world’s longest conveyor belt runs 98km from the contested West Sahara region to the coast, carrying rock phosphate to the coast to be exported. The phosphate rock can be seen from space as a light-colored dust, strewn across the landscape by the desert wind, along the length of the inadequately covered machine. [Picture: Bing Maps]
Despite phosphorus’ myriad uses, the markets have failed to account for it’s tremendous value. The main use for the element is currently the manufacturing of phosphate fertilizers. Of the phosphorus currently mined as rock phosphate for this purpose only 20% end up in the food you eat. The rest is lost from human control as phosphorus pollution. Phosphorus pollution degrades soils and causes eutrophication, paving the way for serious environmental catastrophe. By far the largest phosphorus losses occur in conventional agriculture, where large amounts of superphosphate fertilizer application are required to keep up with the +66% losses from runoff.
To address the problem of phosphorus production peaking during the current century, the economies of the world must begin to recycle their phosphorus in an effort to reduce demand for phosphorus. There is no alternative input for phosphorus in the nutrition of any living thing, making it crucially important a resource to utilize sustainably. There are many ways to reduce demand for imported phosphates. Recycling phosphorus in it’s organic forms back into the soil, reducing erosion and runoff and drawing it into struvite at urban wastewater processing centers are just a few of the multitude of ways to approach improving phosphate efficiency. Recycling phosphorus represents real opportunity to turn a profit while protecting the environment.
Diversifying markets will also open up opportunities for farmers, who can potentially capitalize on their surplus manures and other outputs. There is a real need for a greater degree of security in the global phosphorus market, as relying on a handful of exporting countries can compromise food security for many people all over the world for reasons that are legion in number. This security can be achieved by sourcing phosphorus locally.