With a global food shortage, escalating climate change and continuing political tensions with China and Russia, it should come as no surprise that there is increasing pressure on the trade and supply of phosphate rock within the European Union. Designated an EU Critical Raw Material in 2020, this naturally occurring compound – a natural source of phosphorus – is a vital component of soil science and fertilisers, and according to a report from the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies the EU is “almost entirely dependent on imports of phosphate rock from the rest of the world”.
P is for phosphorus
Phosphorus is a non-renewable natural resource commonly found in phosphate rock containing apatite minerals. Phosphate rocks are present all over the world but, according to WorldAtlas, the largest reserves are in Morocco – approximately 50 billion metric tonnes – more than half of the planet’s total reserves of 72 billion mt. Other significant deposits are located in China – the world’s largest producer – the US, Syria, Uzbekistan, South Africa, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
German scientist, Hennig Brandt discovered phosphorus in 1669, accidentally ‘finding’ it while searching for the “philosopher’s stone”, a substance that was – according to legend and Harry Potter – purported to transmute base metals into gold. It has since been identified that phosphorus plays a crucial role in the human body and is, indeed, considered to be “one of the five elements essential for life” on earth.
In addition to fertilisers, that use the element to replace what is taken out of the soil by plants, boosting crop yields, phosphorus is an important additive in animal feeds, and other phosphate derivatives such as lithium iron phosphate (LFP) is used in electric car batteries – with market leaders Tesla, Ford and Hyundai all exponents. Read more on this here.
Between a rock and a hard place
Thanks to a rapidly growing population and increasing pressure from farmers, along with the quest to find alternatives to oil and gas, the demand for phosphate rock is higher than ever. Supply, however, is another matter. The buyers’ market is becoming increasingly crowded by limited trade – due to political instability in several source countries, as well as international sanctions imposed on others; this is forcing importers to fear an impending crisis.
Add to this: excessive misuse of phosphorus – contributing to increasing releases of methane, which impacts global heating levels – as well as agricultural run-off causing aquatic ‘dead zones’. Scientists are therefore – as quoted by The Guardian – are warning of ‘phosphogeddon’. As Professor Phil Haygarth of Lancaster University puts it: ‘We might be able to turn back but we have really got to pull ourselves together and be an awful lot smarter in the way we use phosphorus. If we don’t, we face a calamity…’. Bristol University’s Professor Penny Johnes is succinct in her concern: ‘To put it simply, there is no life on Earth without phosphorus’.
Where there’s hope, there’s life
With the planet using approximately 50 million tonnes of phosphate supplies each year there are also fears that cartels could take control of sales. Working with local people and using the latest innovation and technology to sensitive, sustainable effect, the exploration licences held by Norge Mining in Norway could be more important than ever, providing a much-needed – and future-proof – lifeline to the EU.