June 23, 2009

This Element's a Time Bomb

While we usually talk about critical minerals that are important to the modern economy and for uses in weapons systems and high-tech gear, the June 2009 Scientific American features an article on one critical to the modern food system: phosphorus. In “Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply,” author David A. Vaccari declares this vital fertilizer ingredient “a geostrategic ticking time bomb.”

This time bomb ticking, Vaccari writes, can be highlighted by a few statistics: the world has about 90 years of economically recoverable reserves, but that’s at today’s pace of use; 83% of these reserves lie within four countries (the United States, China, South Africa, and Morocco); one of these four, China, does not export it; and one of the other four – the United States, where production is not high enough to cover its own consumption and exported products – depends on one of the others, Morocco, to make up its shortfall.

Of course, the author certainly does not imply that the concentrations in few countries of most phosphorus supplies will spark conflict, and he does well to address the possibility that there are ways to recover phosphorus that we use by deploying more sustainable techniques, particularly in agriculture. But this example is an interesting comparison to products like coltan, rare earth elements, and oil. People can live with more expensive cell phones and LCD screens, and can potentially substitute other energy supplies for oil should prices spike or supplies start to drop off. Yet phosphorus is critical to our agricultural system, and thus our largely service economy reliant upon cheap food, and there is no substitute. If phosphorus price increases drive up food prices, it can deter development in poorer nations or reduce exports and donations from fertilizer-using over-producers like the United States.

Any component of our economy that relies on imports from so few countries is noteworthy, and especially one of the basic building blocks of our systems. Regardless of how fast this “time bomb” might be ticking, this article is a good reminder that minerals critical to weapons systems are not the only ones with strategic implications.