Phosphorus plays a pivotal role in modern input-intensive farming practices.
It is a major component of the synthetic fertilizers – those based on the (highly energy intense) Haber-Bosch process of industrial nitrogen fixation, which today generates the ammonia-based fertilizer responsible for sustaining an estimted one-third of the Earth’s population.
Phosphorus is essential for life.
The element is used by plant and animal cells to store energy.
It also forms the backbone of DNA, and it is an essential
ingredient of our bones and teeth.
Farming without it is not a realistic option.
Phosphate rocks of commercially viable phosphorus are finite resource – mined only in several locations.
Morocco, controls about three-quarters of the world’s remaining good-quality phosphate reserves.
While the supply of phosphates is forecast to last for many decades, the richest, high-grade deposits of phosphate rock, such as those that have been already exhausted in Nauru, are being depleted at an increasing rate.
Consequently, the extraction of low-grade rocks is increasingly energy intense and the deposits notable for their inclusion of heavy metals and radioactive uranium isotopes.
There are no alternatives to phosphorus and no synthetic ways of creating it, save for recycling animal and human waste. There has been no incentive to use phosphates sparingly. Only a small fraction is actually absorbed by crop plants, and much is washed off by rain. (In many agricultural systems as much as 80% of phosphorus becomes immobile in the soil and unavailable for plant uptake.)
Phosphorus mines of Morocco and Western Sahara, China, the US and Australia are expected to peak and their exploitation to become commercially and technologically prohibitive within the next 50 – 100 years.