The scientific community has issued a stark warning that we may exhaust supplies of phosphate, a fertiliser that is crucial to ensuring global food security, in the next few decades. Along with nitrogen, phosphate comprises an integral component of the fertiliser that farmers use to spray crops and maximise agricultural yields all over the world.
But while our atmosphere is composed of nearly 80% nitrogen, making that particular element virtually limitless, phosphate derived from rocks is in short supply. It is predicted that many countries will completely run out of the substance within the next generation’s lifetime, handing a monopoly on phosphate over to a select few nations – and a monopoly on food production, as well.
A crucial ingredient
According to recent research, we are so heavily dependent on the use of nitrogen and phosphate to bolster crop yields that without them, we’d only be capable of producing half the amount of food that we currently do. Given that the global population continues to grow at an alarming rate, that is worrying news for the future of our ability to feed the entire human race.
Indeed, our consumption of phosphate has quadrupled in the last half century due to increased global demand for fertiliser. This spike in use has forced scientists to continually reconfigure their estimations for how long the substance will last. In the last three years, those estimates have fallen sharply from 300 years to 259 years, fuelling fears that if demand continues to swell as expected, the vital resource could be exhausted within mere decades.
At present, Finland is the only EU country to command any rock phosphate reserves, while the supplies of China, India and the USA are all predicted to run out in the near future. The biggest reserves are found in Morocco, Algeria and Syria, with Israel, Jordan and Russia all owning significant deposits as well. Experts have speculated that these countries could have direct control of the food production process within a matter of decades.
Searching for alternatives
In order to avoid such a scenario, scientists have been searching for a solution to the problem for some time. One possible avenue involves developing new strains of plant that are adept at drawing phosphate from the soil more efficiently, as well as more sophisticated forms of farming that optimise use of the resource and ensure it lasts as long as possible.
But however efficient the harvesting and use of phosphate becomes, such solutions can only delay the inevitable. For that reason, researchers are really chasing the holy grail of a viable alternative to rock phosphate, with that derived from dissolving animal bones in acid (including phosphate found in equine plasma, among other sources) one potential solution. Phosphate gleaned in this manner was the first discovery of the substance in 1842.
Another possible alternative is the use of new technology to optimise biogas plants so that the waste produced from such facilities can be used as a functional fertiliser. Recycling phosphate from human and animal sewage could indeed be the silver bullet needed to solve the problem, since it’s a limitless resource which will always be around – but the idea requires significant investment and research before it represents a viable option.