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New phosphate report from IFDC

September 29, 2010

A news conference on Tuesday announced the release of a new estimate of phosphate reserves and resources based on an analysis by Dr. Steven Van Kauwenbergh.   The report seems to contain good news, as it includes a large upward re-estimation of available P (10-fold!) and thus the statement that “phosphate rock concentrate reserves to produce fertilizer will be available for the next 300-400 years.”

http://www.ifdc.org/Media_Info/Press_Releases/September_2010/IFDC_Report_Indicates_Adequate_Phosphorus_Resource

However, perhaps the good news needs some tempering and closer analysis.  The upward adjustment appears to be nearly entirely due to a change in the reserve estimates associated with Morocco and represents, in the words of the author, “a preliminary estimate” that has not, for example, passed peer review in the scientific literature.  The report seems to bounce confusingly between “reserves” (known P stocks that can be economically mined with existing technologies at current market prices) and “resources” (P stocks that might someday be available with changes in technologies or increases in commodity price) and does not specify at what price this newly “discovered” Moroccan P might be delivered (i.e. how are “reserves” actually estimated?).  And this, in fact, is the key issue for food security in the developing world, where farmers squeeze out a living on marginal lands, unable to afford fertilizer even at today’s prices.

Finally, the source of the estimate of “300-400 years” is not at all clear but seems to assume that global P demand will be constant from now until these 300-400 years are past.  This seems odd, as it is widely accepted that global food production will need to double or triple between now and 2050 and it’s hard to see how that can happen with NO CHANGE in fertilizer use and production (though that would be nice).

Extended replies to the IFDC report are available at the Phosphorus Futures web site (http://phosphorusfutures.net/files/GPRI_Statement_responseIFDC_final.pdf) and at the Energy Bulletin (http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-09-28/peak-phosphorus-still-threat-food-security-despite-new-report).  The reply from P Futures notes that, even if the new estimates are correct, the timing of “peak P” would only be pushed back a few decades and humanity would still face P scarcity issues within this century.

Expect to see a lot more discussion of this down the line.

(BTW:  IFDC = International Fertilizer Development Center)

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