The debate around the controversial marine phosphate mining continues unabated, but whether the controversy is a result of political or scientific meddling, six months from now a conclusive decision will be made. Phosphate minerals are mined and processed into phosphoric acid that is used to produce various products. The bulk of the phosphate that is mined – more than 85% – is used to produce phosphate fertilisers. Another 5% is used to make animal feed supplements. The remaining phosphates are used in making a variety of food and specialty products such as soft drinks, toothpaste, and leavening agents; and in industrial applications such as detergents, pesticides, metal coatings, and water softeners. Global demand for phosphate fertilisers led to an increase in phosphate production during the second half of the 20th century. Long-term demand for phosphate fertilisers is growing at about 2% per year, driven by population growth, improving diets and bio-fuels demand. The total market value of all phosphate products is estimated at US$30 billion.
Phosphorus availability and uses
Following the dramatic U-turn by environment minister Pohamba Shifeta on the issuance of an environmental clearance certificate to Namibia Marine Phosphate and its subsequent revocation, the phosphate elephant in the Namibian fisheries and mining room has not suddenly stood up and disappeared. It has for practical purposes merely been delayed. Food production requires application of fertilisers containing phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium on agricultural fields in order to sustain crop yields. However, modern agriculture is dependent on phosphorus derived from phosphate rock, which is a non-renewable resource and current global reserves may be depleted in 50-100 years. While phosphorus demand is projected to increase, the expected global peak in phosphorus production is predicted to occur around 2030. The exact timing of peak phosphorus production might be disputed, however, it is widely acknowledged within the fertiliser industry that the quality of remaining phosphate rock is decreasing and production costs are increasing. Yet future access to phosphorus receives little or no international attention. Numerous recent studies discuss phosphate rock extraction, and some even propose that a peak in production could be reached in coming decades. This would have great consequences as phosphate rock based fertilisers are irreplaceable in modern agriculture.
Studies suggesting an impending peak commonly use curve fitting models where
mathematical functions are fitted to historical world production data, while studies using other methods reach completely different results. Also, a sudden increase in global reserve estimates is commonly used to dismiss these warnings, and has somewhat altered the debate. The recent multiplication of estimated reserves is mostly based on an increase of the Moroccan reserve estimate, leading to Morocco currently making up most of the global reserves. The global trade of phosphate rock could be completely dependent on Morocco in the future. There are several different factors that can potentially limit global production and these factors should be considered for the individual producing countries.
Does phosphorus equal food?
Phosphorus is essential for all living matter, including bacteria, plants and animals. We get our phosphorus from the food we eat, which in turn comes from the phosphate fertilisers we apply to crops. Phosphate fertiliser is essential for modern food production and is the limiting factor in crop yields. Phosphorus is a critical global resource, along with side water and energy resources. Around 90% of the phosphate rock extracted globally is for food production (the remainder is for industrial applications like detergents). The majority of the world’s agricultural fields today rely on fertilisers derived from inorganic minerals, such as phosphate rock. Phosphate rock is a non-renewable resource that takes 10-15 million years to form from seabed to uplift and weathering, and current known reserves are likely to be depleted in 50-100 years. Phosphate rock reserves are highly geographically concentrated, and thus only exist under control of a small number of countries, including China, Morocco (who controls Western Sahara’s reserves), and the US. The US has approximately 25 years of reserves remaining, while China has imposed a 135% export tariff on phosphate rock to secure domestic supply. Western Europe and India are totally dependent on imports. Importing Western Saharan P rock via Moroccan authorities is condemned by the UN and has recently been boycotted by several Scandinavian firms. Like oil and other natural resources, the rate of production of economically available phosphate reserves will eventually peak, followed by a steep decline and subsequent increasing gap between demand and supply. An analysis based on industry data shows the global peak P is expected to occur around 2040. While oil can be substituted with other sources when its reserves peak (like wind, biomass or thermal energy), phosphorus has no substitute in food production and as an element cannot be manufactured or synthesized.
Growing Food Demand
Demand for phosphorus is increasing globally, despite a downward trend in developed regions like Western Europe. This is due to an increasing per capita and overall demand for food in developing countries, from in emerging economies like China and India, which are significantly more P intensive. A balanced diet results in depletion of around 22.5kg/year of phosphate rock (or 3.2kg/year P) per person based on current practice. This is 50 times greater than the 1.2 g/person recommended daily intake of P. Achieving the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating hunger means we must change the way we source and use phosphorus in global food production. The African continent is simultaneously the world’s largest producer of phosphate rock (almost 30% of the global share) and the continent with the largest deficit in food security. Close to a quarter of the mined P (0.25 billion tonnes) since 1950 has found its ways into the aquatic environment (oceans and freshwater lakes) or buried in sanitary landfills or sinks.
This brings us invariably back to geopolitics and food security. As the reserves of Phosphorous dwindle and geopolitical positioning intensifies, the price of phosphorus will, naturally, increase and food security will, again, become the central issue in countries that cannot afford to keep pace. In Namibia, this strengthens the hand of Namibia Marine Phosphates who point out that the mining is of the utmost economic and geopolitical importance. The quality of phosphate rock is declining for two reasons: the concentration of P2 05 in mined P rock is decreasing; and the concentration of associated heavy metals like cadmium are increasing. The cadmium content of phosphate rock can be very high. This is either considered a harmful concentration for application in agriculture, or, expensive and energy intensive to remove (maximum concentrations for fertilisers exist in some regions, like Western Europe). Every tonne of P2 O5 in phosphoric acid generates 5 tonnes of phosphogypsum, a toxic by-product of phosphate rock mining. Radium levels are typically unacceptably high for reuse or disposal, and thus it must be stockpiled. The price of phosphate rock has risen 700% since February 2007. While demand continues to increase, the cost of mining phosphate rock is increasing due to decline in quality and greater expense of extraction, refinement and environmental management. In addition to increasing the demand and hence price of phosphate rock, biofuel demand is increasing fertiliser runoff from short-rooted energy crops to pollute waterways.
The Sandpiper Project
NMP owns the Sandpiper marine phosphate project, approximately 60km off the coast of Namibia, which covers a total area of approximately 7 000 square kilometres in the regional phosphate-enriched province to the south of Walvis Bay in water depths of 180-300m. NMP is placed in a strategic position to also develop a new phosphate province in Namibia and controls a substantial part of the most prospective areas. The area specifically includes all of the central enriched core area, where published regional mapping shows phosphate concentration of more than 20% by weight.
These deposits were delineated during regional scientific studies in the 1970s but have remained undeveloped. The deposits occur as unconsolidated sea floor sediments, which now lie within the reach and capability of currently available dredging technology. The NMP JV is focused on an accelerated programme for development of the project. Development efforts to date have included, according to the NMP website, extensive resource delineation, investigations and discussions with several reputable contractors and organisations in the key technical areas of marine mining/dredging technology, beneficiation and potential off-take candidates, as well as with local, regional and national government departments and officials. The areas contain an inferred resource of some 1 608 metric tons of extractable phosphate rock and could be a considerable boost to the Namibia economy, as well as the mining industry. Unfortunately, this resource also falls plumb into the centre of prime fish stock breeding grounds and this is what the whole controversy of fisheries versus phosphate mining is all about. Will it be to Namibia’s benefit to ignore some of the inherent dangers of the phosphate mining and accept the fact that the fishing grounds may be negatively affected to some lesser degree, or do they hold sacrosanct the fish breeding grounds which had secured permanent and reliable employment for thousands of Namibians and their families for many year in the past and, as far as can be determined, for many years yet to come? In the findings on the topic yesterday, Environment minister Shifeta pointed out that further public consultation is necessary, and caution needs to be taken into account to balance the rights of citizens and the public good.