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P is for Price: News stories from Thailand, India, and Tunisia illustrate the problem.

December 4, 2011

Much concern about P sustainability surrounds not only the pollution impacts of P as it exits farm fields, feed lots, and cities but also the prospects of “P scarcity,” a topic that can generate a lot of confusion.  For example, when in 2010 the IFDC released its (strongly upward) estimate of P reserves in Morocco, it would seem that issues of “P scarcity” should go away (at least for a century or two). But the importance of P for farmers and food production is not related to how much P is actually “in the ground” but instead relates to whether or not you can afford to buy it.  And that depends on (among other things) what country you’re in, whether or not the P can reach you, the willingness of P-exporting countries (within decades to be dominated by Morocco, of course) to sell, your own ability to pay,  the political situation in P-producing countries, and various other complexities, including natural disasters, along the supply chain.  Several of these complexities are illustrated in a series of recent news stories.

Riots in city of Gafsa have disrupted P mining activities

“Curfew in Tunisian towns after violence”  (in the turbulence of the “Arab Spring”, rioting in the P mining town of Gafsa, has placed much of the P industry of Tunisia into uncertainty.)  Link

“Thailand’s Flooding to Push down China’s Export Volume of Phosphoric Acid”  (illustrates how natural events can disrupt long supply chains for P fertilizer) Link

“India fertilizer prices surge 65% in June-Nov 2011”  (increasing global P prices combine with weakening of Indian currency reduce access to P by Indian farmers)  Link

The story line, then, is that the key issue for world farmers seeking to maintain and increase yield is that “access to P,” which is a function of its price coupled to local purchasing power, is likely to continue to decline as prices continue to rise (due to growing demand for feed the people of 2050 and due to oligopoly pricing from P-producing countries).  It would seem strategic, especially for countries like India, to find a new paradigm for P fertilizer that sources P fertilizer internally via, for example, methods of ecological sanitation (at village scale) and wastewater treatment recovery (in more developed urban areas).  And everyone gets cleaner rivers, lakes, and oceans AND safer drinking water.  So, what’s holding us back?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2012 5:49 pm

    Several studies have shown that even if we were able to tap the entire global sewage resource, we could offset the essential food production demand for phosphate fertilizer by less than 2%. We have a serious problem regarding an agricultural technology (the Green Revolution) that has used up cheap petroleum and cheap high concentrations of natural phosphates to produce the food to generate 7 B – going to 9 B people. Without cheap phosphates the Green Revolution comes to a squeaking halt and we will be forced to go back to the natural phosphorus replenishment cycle of agricultural soils – which has demonstrably supported something less than 2 billion people. Unfortunately, we have a scientifically ignorant populace and an equally representatively scientifically ignorant group of democratically elected leaders – who aren’t addressing the solutions to this rapidly approaching crisis.

    • May 4, 2012 10:47 pm

      Hi there! I’ve examined these estimates and 100% recycling P from human waste would atually yield closer to ~10-20% of total P applied in agriculture. Still not enough, but significant. To “close the cycle”, additional P would have to recovered from food processing and domestic animal production. Still this wouldn’t be enough – we need to tighten up P use in the field to assure that more is captured by the crops and less is leached and eroded. Turns out there is no single, “silver bullet”, for this issue, which, as you point out, is of tremendous importance. Hence, the Sustainable P Initiative and other efforts (such as the Global P Network) are doing their utmost but there is a long way to go.

  2. Reddy permalink
    December 22, 2012 9:05 am

    India? Worried about P? Naaah, no one really cares. The administrators think they will continue to get P supplies notwithstanding the geo-political events and the cost is just a number for them. They think that since we were ALWAYS importing P, we can continue to rely on imports. And their BEST solution is, ask an Indian Public Sector Company to go form a JV with a supplier (beats me how that is going to insure the country against supply disruptions, if the ORIGIN of the rock / acid is not going to change). No amount of literature will wake them up to the need to develop domestic resources. All that is done is lip-service. Same is the case with K (100% imported, while sitting on BILLIONS of tonnes of evaporites and glauconites). Sad. [And I am speaking from first hand experience; not hearsay].

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