As the U.S. House of Representatives elected a new speaker this week, with mild-mannered opening comments on working across the aisle, one might wonder how bipartisanship can be operationalized on natural resource policy. A letter signed by an assemblage of Republican and Democrat lawmakers to U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, sent forth on October 24th, presents us with an intriguing example. This letter calls for a reduction in countervailing duties (CVDs) on imports of an essential ingredient in fertilizers – phosphates.
The public often sees phosphorus in terms of its negative environmental connotations. Labels on detergents reading “phosphate free” highlight this tendency alongside the global lament on the impacts of phosphate mining in countries like Nauru in the central Pacific. Yet phosphorus is essential for all living cells as it is a key elemental constituent of Adenosine Triphopshate (ATP) — the molecule that acts as currency for energy transfer. Phosphorus is thus a limiting element for life and it is for that very reason that it has been so prized for fertilizer production to make its way into the food chain. Indeed, the paucity of observed life in the universe thus far was hypothesized to be linked to the scarcity of phosphorus on planets by the great science and science-fiction writer Issac Asimov.
Phosphate mining on the remote pacific island of Nauru ravaged the landscape, but also helped propel the food production in Australia and many other parts of the world in the twentieth century. I had an opportunity to visit Nauru in 2015 and co-authored on an article published in the journal Ambio a couple of years later. The goal of this article was to consider ecological restoration of Nauru’s phosphate mining region so that this resilient little country could “bounce back better” — a term that has acquired new currency in the age of COVID-19. As Nauru’s land is restored through a strategy of diversification, we should also consider the supply chain for phosphorus and ways to harness the element more sustainably.
More than 70% of the world’s rock phosphate for fertilizer production is now found in Morocco and the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Just before leaving office, former President Trump recognized Morocco’s claim to all of the Western Sahara region in exchange for the country’s resumption of diplomatic ties with Israel. The Biden administration has not indicated a reversal of this policy and de facto Morocco will likely remain in control of much of the phosphate mining region. The concentration of economically viable phosphate deposits with one country should be a concern as the element is key for global food security. At the same time if there is good governance and responsible mining of these reserves, they could be a source of poverty alleviation in the phosphate mining regions of the Sahara.
To address this reliance on mined phosphorus, research on recycling of phosphorus from effluent and a variety of other sources is now gaining greater attention. However, cost factors are still very high as compared with mined phosphorus. Far greater research on biotic mechanisms for harnessing phosphorus, including from phosphine gas, need to be considered. Research on phosphine’s role in the global phosphorus cycle is drawing increased attention by researchers. Indeed, greater bioavailability of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in the Anthropocene has strongly impacted terrestrial plant communities. We are thus left with a paradox that despite the limiting scarcity of phosphorus for human food security, it has become more diffusely abundant through human agricultural industries and waste systems.