The best news you haven’t heard this summer is that the world’s supply of phosphate just got a lot bigger.
Simply put, phosphate makes things grow—especially when we use it to create the synthetic fertilizer that is essential to everyone’s food security.
Explorers in Norway say they have discovered a massive deposit of high-quality phosphate rock. It could contain 70 billion tons or more, essentially doubling the world’s proven reserves of 71 billion tons. This discovery breakthrough means that fertilizer will remain a viable food production tool for most of the rest of the century—and that farmers like me will use it to produce more food than ever before.
That’s good for everyone.
Farmers always have understood the importance of fertilizer. It’s like fuel for plants, pushing them to grow bigger, stronger, and more fruitful.
Long ago, farmers relied almost exclusively on manure. For a time, bat guano was a valuable supplement. At the start of the 20th century, however, scientists identified a process to produce synthetic fertilizer. They perfected the formula, and its widespread use by farmers led to a massive boom in global crop productivity. Combined with additional technological advances in seed genetics, crop protection, mechanization, and more, synthetic fertilizers became one of agriculture’s indispensable resources.
Today, we need it. You can always raise a little bit of something without doing anything, but to achieve food production on a commercial scale to satisfy human needs and demands, farmers require synthetic fertilizer.
If I were to try to grow corn in one of my fields without fertilizer, I’d possibly get half a crop the first year. Much of the result would depend on the quality of the soil. Over time, however, the health of the soil would deplete, becoming less fertile and viable for crop production. Harvests would grow smaller and eventually shrink to nothing. It would be like a permanent drought had hit my farm.
Synthetic fertilizer solves this problem with its three major components. Two of them are common and inexpensive. Potassium, also known as “potash,” feeds the roots and stems of plants. Nitrogen sustains the leaves.
The third major component is phosphate, whose main job is to nourish the flower, but it also assists with virtually every aspect of a plant’s growth and health. There is no substitute for it.
Phosphate also is harder and more expensive to find than potassium and nitrogen. Its relative scarcity is a major cause of recent food-price inflation. War has compounded the problem. Russia lately has supplied the world with a lot of phosphate, but not since its invasion of Ukraine. As its production left the market, prices inflated. Farmers saw this through higher costs for fertilizer and consumers noticed it through higher prices at grocery stores, markets and restaurants.
About 90 percent of the world’s phosphate goes into synthetic fertilizer for agriculture, but it’s also important for computer chips, solar panels, and electric-car batteries.
Earlier this year, a British scientist warned of “phosphogeddon”—and the looming danger, according to The Guardian, of “deadly shortages of fertilizers that would disrupt global food production.”
The discovery in Norway is a ray of hope and optimism. By one estimate, the Norwegian deposit can supply the world’s phosphate needs at current levels of consumption for half a century. We’ll see if this prediction bears out, including whether European political activists and bureaucrats try to make extraction difficult. Yet even if the reality doesn’t quite match the bright forecast, we should remain grateful for a large new source of a vital resource.
On a planet with more people than ever before putting more demands on our natural resources, we all take our responsibility to strive for sustainability seriously—and farmers have an important role to play as we work to become more efficient and productive.
Yet we can’t just regulate our way to success through rules and restrictions. We must innovate and improve, relying on human ingenuity and technological advances to do more with less—and always working hard to find new ways to discover and effectively use what the world has given us.
Featured image: CC-BY-2.0 James St. John Flickr stream