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The view of P from Europe: a new report

February 3, 2013
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A new report (“Risks and Opportunities in the Global Phosphate Market”) has just been released, analyzing the P situation from the perspective of the European Union.  (LINK ) It was prepared by The Hague Center for Strategic Studies as a lead-in to the upcoming European Sustainable Phosphorus Conference on 6-7 March (LINK).  It’s quite a thorough piece drawing on both published articles, news reports, and interviews with various experts in the P sector.  Some highlights include:

– A well-nuanced overview of the P scarcity issue, being careful to distinguish among reserves and resources, and noting the ongoing discussions and dynamic nature of these estimates.

– An assessment that the new, higher prices for P (up about 3-fold since 2007) are likely to stay high and may go higher but are very unlikely to decline in the near future.

– An analysis of the P import reliance of the US phosphate industry, which seems to be on the rise, as well as similar trends for China.  (These trends leave Europe to rely largely on imports from Russia and various northern Africa exporters, such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan).

– Assessment of China’s increasing trend to consolidate its phosphate mines and fertilizer producers and to take the P situation very seriously, noting that China has listed phosphate as the country’s third most important “strategic resource”.

– Expressions of concern that so much of Europe’s P supply will need to depend on northern African supplies, given the geopolitical situations there (including controversy over western Sahara, the status of the Asad regime in Syria, and ongoing labor unrest in Tunisia) AND given that the northern Africa phosphate rock has relatively concentrations of cadmium.  Concerns are growing in Europe about the accumulation of cadmium and other metals in soils (and food?) due to fertilizer application.  Furthermore, it is likely that the metal content of remaining P reserves is higher than that in reserves that are already being exploited.

– Discussion of how water scarcity in phosphate producing countries (esp. those in n. Africa) sets up possible conflicts between water-intensive P mining operations and agricultural development, further constraining expansion of phosphate rock production.

– Elaboration of possible pathways for P recycling in Europe, noting that, in the EU, P in urban wastewater is equivalent to 1/3 of the P imported for fertilizer.

– Description of Dutch Phosphate Value Chain Agreement of October 2011 that provides a means for companies, universities, government organizations, and NGO’s  to develop, in the next two years, a market for recycled phosphate and a means for export of that which is not used for Dutch agriculture.

– A creative analysis of various scenarios for the next several decades that attempt to sketch out how the P situation will evolve depending on the relative strengths of individuals, corporations, NGO’s, and nation-states and their attitudes for cooperation vs. conflict.

Some of the best passages towards the end of the report relate to how to develop “no regrets” strategies for P:  what can be done NOW that is reasonable and sound in its own right and that will set the stage in facilitating later actions as the situation evolves.  For example: – improve agricultural P efficiency; prevent permanent dilution / loss of P; promote P recovery research and technologies; develop knowledge networks, etc.

All in all, the piece does indeed set the stage nicely for the upcoming meeting in Europe in March but also for the Kickoff Meeting of the NSF Research Coordination Network for Phosphorus Sustainability set for May 2013.  (LINK)

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