Two Australian experts in global phosphorus have warned instability in the Middle East and North Africa could threaten world food security, due to the high proportion of global phosphate rock reserves in the region.
Speaking in the US at the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit at Arizona State University, Professor Stuart White and Dr Dana Cordell are concerned that the instability is an additional component in a looming supply-demand gap in global phosphorus resources.
Phosphorus is required to produce fertiliser and is not able to be substituted in food production.
"Morocco alone controls the vast majority of the world's remaining high quality phosphate rock," Professor White said. "Even a temporary disruption to the supply of phosphate on the world market can have serious ramifications for nations' food security."
Professor White and Dr Cordell, from the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, are leading an international research initiative on the likely peak in phosphate rock production before the end of the century.
"Demand for phosphorus is increasing globally due to changing diets in developing countries, biofuel production and population growth," Professor White said.
"Peak phosphorus is often highly misunderstood as the 'year we will run out of phosphorus'. The peak actually refers to the point in time when production will no longer be able to keep up with demand due to economic and energy constraints. Whilst the exact timeline is uncertain, it will be much sooner than the time when all the reserves have been depleted.
"Even before the peak in production occurs, there is the prospect of significant price spikes and impact on farmers and global crop yields."
The two researchers have announced the launch of the Global Phosphorus Network – the first public platform of its kind to allow dialogue and debate on this important global security and sustainability issue. Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Professor Paul Crutzen will be the Network's first Ambassador.
"The solutions rest in improving the efficiency of use, as much of the phosphate resource is wasted between the mine and the dinner plate," Dr Cordell said.
"No governments have a plan for securing sufficient access to phosphorus for producing food in the long-term. Whatever the exact year of peak phosphorus, it is clear we need to start taking action now. This means investing in renewable phosphorus fertilisers (by recovering and reusing phosphorus from our excreta, manure and food waste) and increasing the efficiency of phosphorus use from mining to fertiliser application to food processing.
"In addition to our existing research in global solutions, there is a huge opportunity for this new network to stimulate innovation through an exchange of ideas."