What do Morocco and Mars have in Common?

Phosphate rock, or more specifically phosphorus. Without it we cannot survive. Phosphorus, known by the chemical symbol "P" on the periodic table of elements, is a critical nutrient for plant growth and is essential for life on Earth.

Phosphorus is mined in the form of phosphate rock and is a primarily used in agricultural production. It is a component of commercial fertilizers commonly available with nitrogen and potassium in ratios known as N-P-K. Phosphorus is an element and cannot be manufactured synthetically nor can it be substituted. In other words, it is a finite resource. While phosphorus cannot be destroyed, it is geographically dispersed through human consumption and cannot yet be recovered from the environment economically at meaningful scale.

Morocco is the future Saudi Arabia

Based on known reserves today, Morocco and Western Sahara control nearly 74% of reserves of phosphate rock giving them near monopolistic control over phosphorus and consequently

production of our world’s future food supply.

While globally our known reserves of phosphate rock will not exhaust for the next, say, 200-300 years (not all that long of a period in terms of human history), without new discoveries the two largest economies, the United States and China, will exhaust their reserves in less than 40 years and 22 years, respectively. This assumes no increase in population growth or standard of living from growing middles classes in Asia.

And we are mining it faster than ever before. Between 2000 and 2016, mined phosphate rock nearly doubled, well ahead of the pace of population growth, from 132,000 to 261,000 metric tons according to USGS data. And while the USGS estimates there may be more than 300 billion metric tons of phosphate rock on our planet, it can take many decades to obtain government approvals, finance, and bring new mining operations online notwithstanding environmental concerns. This could leave us much more dependent on Morocco and Western Sahara for our supplies and is likely to lead to much higher fertilizer prices in the future.

Why Mars is a long-term solution

Mars surface. Photo Credit: NASA

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are onto something. Assuming we are able to mine all of the phosphate rock on Earth it would leave us with 1,000 years or so of mineable phosphate before we run out extractable reserves on Earth. However, compared to Earth there is evidence that Mars’ mantle has a higher concentration of phosphorus and potassium, two of the three key nutrients required for agricultural production. The data was collected from the Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity landing sites on Mars. For sustaining agricultural production and life that's good news if we can figure out how to bring it back to Earth economically. In the meanwhile, perhaps the best approach to ensure we are less reliant on one region of our planet for phosphorus is to vigorously pursue sustainable farming practices, reduce food waste, and develop technology for recovering phosphorus from the environment.

#Whereintheworld is all the phosphate rock?

The United States Geological Survey publishes a report, annually, of mining production and estimates of known reserves. Table 1 shows the countries with phosphate rock reserves.

For further reading:

Bell, J. (2008). The Martian Surface: Composition, Mineralogy, and Physical Properties. New York, Cambridge University Press.

USGS (2017). Mineral Commodity Summaries 2017. Virginia, U.S. Department of the Interior.

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