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News Archive 2009
News Archive 2008

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Peak phosphorous: mankind's latest threat
Some believe that dwindling supplies of potable water is humanity's great resource challenge; others think it is the imminent prospect of "peak oil". But an equally important milestone in modern history will be an inevitable tightening of global supplies of phosphorus.
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Farm Online
21 Jan, 2010 04:00 AM

Phosphorus has underpinned the leaps made in agricultural productivity since World War II, and the world's economies and population levels have become dependent on a continous supply of the element.

Unlike nitrogen, which can by synthesised from the air, or the use of renewable energy to substitute for fossil fuels, there is no substitute for phosphorus. All the world's phosphate fertilisers come from mined phosphate rock, making it a finite resource.

Various analyses suggest "peak phosphorus" - the point at which supply falls behind demand - will occur around 2040, with all currently known reserves potentially exhausted within 50 to 100 years.

However, University of Technology Sydney researchers Dana Cordell and Stuart White warn that for most countries, a phosphorus squeeze is likely to come much sooner.

Demand for phosphorus is growing in line with population growth, and is being pushed higher by greater consumption of meat in countries like China and India .

(Based on European practices, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a vegetable-based diet uses 0.6 kilograms of phosphorus per person per year, compared with 1.6 kg for a meat-based diet.)

Few nations have access to enough phosphorus to supply their own agricultural needs: in fact, most of the world's known phosphate reserves are controlled by China , the United States and Morocco .

China has the largest reported reserves, but in 2008, at the height of the food crisis, China 's central government introduced a 135 per cent tariff on exports to protect domestic supply.

The US , historically the world's largest consumer, importer and exporter of phosphate fertilisers, is now thought to have only about 25 years of domestic phosphate reserves left. US fertiliser manufacturers are importing large quantities of phosphate from Morocco .

Morocco supplies more than a third of the world's phosphate, but it is an industry that stands on politically unstable ground. Much of Morocco 's phosphate comes from the disputed territories of the Western Sahara , an activity that has been condemned by the United Nations.

Phosphorus may be in finite supply, and that supply politically uncertain, but Australia 's agricultural and food systems remain highly inefficient users of the fertiliser.

Dana Cordell calculates that only two per cent of phosphate fertiliser applied in Australia is eaten in locally-consumed food.

Up to 75 per cent of P fertiliser is locked-up in agricultural soils. About 20 per cent of applied fertiliser is exported in farm produce, and a minor amount is leached into waterways, contributing to nutrient overload or carried out to sea.

One researcher has estimated that of the billion tonnes of phosphorus mined since 1950, about a quarter now lies in water bodies or landfills.

Each year, Ms Cordell says, humans eat about three million tonnes of phosphorus, and excrete close to 100 per cent of it.

In some countries, that has led to serious investigation of recycled urine as a source of agricultural phosphorus.

Urine is "essentially sterile", and contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the correct ratios for plant growth.

If all human urine was recycled, according to Jan-Olof Drangert of Linköping University in Sweden , where Dana Cordell also studies, it could supply half the phosphorus needs of the world's cereal crops.

Two Swedish municipalities have mandated that all new toilets must divert urine away from solid waste. The urine is collected in tanks either at the house, or in a communal collection point, and picked up once a year by farmers who use it as fertiliser.

However, in countries like Australia , with a large land area and a relatively small population, nutrient recycling can at best provide five per cent of the nation's phosphorus needs.



News archive:
14.04 - 2010RFK and HRW call for human rights monitoring in Western Sahara
10.04 - 2010Morocco to appoint a Polisario deserter Ambassador to Spain
09.04 - 2010Morocco must end harassment of Sahrawi activists
05.04 - 2010Worldwide appeal for human rights monitoring in Western Sahara
06.04 - 2010Moroccan crack-down against group of Saharawi activists
04.04 - 2010Appeal by political prisoner's mother
02.04 - 2010Health Sahrawi political prisoners on hunger strike deteriorating
16.03 - 2010Emprisoned Saharawi activist wins human rights award
05.03 - 2010First EU-Morocco summit: Don’t forget human rights in Western Sahara
05.03 - 2010Take action for human rights monitoring in Western Sahara
24.02 - 2010European Parliament's lawyers declare EU fishing illegal
12.02 - 2010Parties to Western Sahara dispute commit to further UN-backed talks
09.02 - 2010Parties in Western Sahara dispute to hold new round of talks tomorrow
28.01 - 2010Morocco slammed for Sahara travel ban
23.01 - 2010Peak phosphorous: mankind's latest threat
18.12 - 2009Activist's "victory" over Morocco puts Sahara back on world agenda
18.12 - 2009Activist heads home after ending hunger strike
17.12 - 2009As UN Council meets on Western Sahara, ill Haidar is freed
17.12 - 2009Western Sahara hunger striker taken to hospital
05.12 - 2009AU calls on Moroccan authorities to allow return of rights activist

Africa's last colony Since 1975, three quarters of the Western Sahara territory has been illegally occupied by Morocco. The original population lives divided between those suffering human rights abuses under the Moroccan occupation and those living in exile in Algerian refugee camps. For more than 40 years, the Saharawi await the fulfilment of their legitimate right to self-determination.
Trailer: Western Sahara, Africa's last colony


Have a look at this teaser for the upcoming documentary "Western Sahara, Africa's last colony". Coming soon.
Book: International Law and the Question of Western Sahara


To our knowledge the first collective book on the legal aspects of the Western Sahara conflict. Available in English and French.