Phosphate extraction is now at its peak for essential human life uses, but experts worry that its reserves could run out in the coming decades.
The world is facing a crisis of phosphate shortage, a valuable substance whose shortage could seriously threaten the world’s food supply. This is not a tasteless joke on the eve of the New Year, this is a serious concern for agricultural experts.
Crude phosphate is a valuable and important substance for human life as well as all activities on earth, especially for the agricultural industry and food production. However, phosphate resources are finite and its important reserves are located in Politically unstable countries, so that its regular and continuous supply is facing a serious challenge. This can be a serious problem for countries without phosphate reserves.
Phosphate consumption worldwide has quadrupled in the last 50 years as the population has grown, and with each increase in demand, the expiration date of the reserves gets closer. This time – the time of the end of resources – can be even closer to the most pessimistic estimated date. According to scientific estimates, if the phosphate reserves were depleted and in the absence of nitrogen – which makes up to 80% of the atmosphere – the world could only produce food at half its current does.
Martin Blackwell, of the Rothamsted Scientific Research, an UK Agricultural Research Center and lead author of a new study, believes that phosphate supply is actually a major problem. “The population is growing and we need more food,” he added.
According to a recent study by Blackwell: with the current rate of consumption, many countries, including the United States, China, and India, will face depletion of their phosphate reserves in future generations. Morocco and the Western Sahara, along with China, Algeria and Syria, together account for 80% of the world’s phosphate reserves. “In the near future, a serious political problem can be imagined with some countries that effectively controlling the food industry by controlling the supply of crude phosphate. Therefore, one should be prepared for such a situation because it is a problem,” Blackwell added. It is an important global issue.
Professor Martin Van Ittersum of Wageningen University in the Netherlands believes that the problem can start even sooner, before the reserves run out. “Before the world’s phosphate resources run out, prices will go up sharply due to declining production and supply,” he said.
For this global problem, we can think of recycling phosphate from human waste, sewage and abattoir waste, and a new generation of technology that can efficiently extract phosphate from the soil, as well as ending the overuse of phosphate fertilizers.
Excessive use of phosphate not only drains resources faster but also increases environmental pollution by creating depleted areas in rivers and seas. In 2015, a study published in the Journal of Science found that phosphate pollution is one of the most serious environmental hazards facing the world.
Another study published in the journal Frontiers of Agriculture Science and Engineering states that the continued supply of phosphate fertilizers, which has severely affected the food industry, is an imminent crisis.
This study goes on to estimate that the world’s phosphate reserves can only be used for 259 to 300 years, after that we will face a phosphate shortage. It is vital. According to this study, if with increasing demand, the estimated duration decreases with the same pace, then the time of depletion of reserves will be in 2040, less than 20 years.
Although this conclusion is very pessimistic, but it reveals points that are of great importance. In this case, a fundamental change in trade, consumption and recycling of phosphate in the world is needed. These changes are especially critical in China, India and the United States. These countries are the most populous countries in the world, and in particular, they rely on phosphate fertilizers to feed their citizens.
In 2014, the European Commission announced that phosphate is an essential raw material whose supply posed significant risks. Because only Finland has all the reserves in the bloc and the rest of EU countries import their phosphate needs from Morocco, Algeria, Russia, Occupied Palestine and Jordan. With this in mind, the EU has always relied on countries struggling with political crises to supply the phosphate that it needs.
The history of commercialization of phosphate fertilizers dates back to 1842 by dissolving animal bones in sulfuric acid. Blackwell and his team are currently looking for a new way to produce phosphate fertilizers. In their new study, they seek to convert bones, horns, blood, and abattoir waste into phosphate fertilizers. Blackwell believes that with this method, they can meet 15 to 25% of Britain’s need for phosphate fertilizers. Another method that scientists are working on is use of human waste to produce fertilizer.
Van Ittersum says phosphate extraction from human and animal wastes is vital, but it will take a long time to develop and complete newer technologies and new legislation to ensure that contamination and infection are not transmitted to humans.
Of course, the other way is to less consumption. Blackwell believes: soil tests that are now available to farmers are not very advanced, so farmers add much more fertilizer to the soil to make sure enough phosphate reaches plants. This means that the amount of phosphate in the soil will be much higher than required. This phosphate is mainly contained in the pods of organic molecules so that it cannot be used by plants. Some plants can break down the pods and extract phosphate by producing acid and enzymes. Scientists are currently working on new genetic modifications of plants. These plants can break molecular sheaths. Ittersum says such research is urgent because it usually takes a long time to produce efficient crops.
Phosphate expert Marissa de Noer says the lack of public awareness of the issue means that people are unfamiliar with environmental hazards. She said phosphate processing from human waste, food waste, industrial waste can meet Netherlands’ needs, if the technology proves successful: “As long as people have got to go to the toilet, and wastewater treatment is centralized, we can use our own phosphate.”