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There is No P in Europe: EU Identifies Phosphate Rock as Critical Raw Material

July 2, 2014

A recently released European Commission report identified phosphate rock as one of its most critical raw materials (1).  The EU is concerned with securing access to materials used in a variety of products vital to sustaining and improving quality of life.  Phosphate rock is included as a critical non-food and non-energy material based on both its economic importance and supply risks (see figure below, courtesy European Critical Raw Materials Review).

Phosphate is important to the EU economically based on its usage in certain industries and the percentage of the gross domestic product associated with those industries.  The principal use of phosphate rock is for production of fertilizer, and so the reason it wields a large economic importance is its vital role in agriculture.  The report further identifies phosphate rock as the single most irreplaceable raw material, with only 2% of applications having a viable substitute.  Exasperated by low recycling rates, phosphate rock has a critical value in agricultural and overall economic production.

eucritmat

Figure from (1) showing P rock crossing EU “thresholds” for supply risk and economic importance, leading it to be classified as a “critical raw material”.

Risks on the supply side arise due to the heavy reliance on imports and the concentration of those imports from only three main sources.  The 28 member countries of the EU combined have less than 1% of the production capacity and less than 1% of the reserves of world phosphate rock (2), but must feed over 7% of the world population.  It therefore must rely heavily on imported phosphate to maintain its agriculture.

The primary sources of phosphate imports to the EU are from the United States, China, and Morocco.  The United States is the most stable trading partner of the three, but it is also the country that most egregiously over-mines its limited supply.  This of course leads to concerns over long-term production capacity and continued ability to meet demands of both itself and the EU.  In contrast, Morocco has the largest reserves in the world, but ranks the lowest in terms of stability as an economic partner due to continued disputes over the Western Sahara.  China ranks somewhere in the middle for both phosphate reserves and for trade stability.

Identifying phosphate rock as a critical material enables policies and initiatives to secure resources and spur efficient use and reuse.  Other critical raw materials identified in the report include rare earth elements, coal, tungsten, and chromium.

References:

(1) European Critical Raw Materials Review. Memo 14.377 published May 2014. Available from http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-14-377_en.htm
(2) USGS 2014 Mineral Commodity Summary: Phosphate Rock. Available from http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/phosphate_rock/

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