Without phosphorus food cannot be produced, since all plants and animals need it to grow. Put simply: if there is no phosphorus, there is no life. As such, phosphorus-based fertilisers – it is the “P” in “NPK” fertiliser – have become critical to the global food system.
Most phosphorus comes from non-renewable phosphate rock and it cannot be synthesised artificially. All farmers therefore need access to it, but 85% of the world’s remaining high-grade phosphate rock is concentrated in just five countries (some of which are “geopolitically complex”): Morocco, China, Egypt, Algeria and South Africa.
Seventy per cent is found in Morocco alone. This makes the global food system extremely vulnerable to disruptions in the phosphorus supply that can lead to sudden price spikes. For example, in 2008 the price of phosphate fertilisers rocketed 800%.
At the same time, phosphorus use in food production is extremely inefficient, from mine to farm to fork. It runs off agricultural land into rivers and lakes, polluting water which in turn can kill fish and plants, and make water too toxic to drink.