World News /11 Mar 2018

Phosphate Rock : EU Imports to be Ruled by Russian Suppliers?

Two thirds of a trillion tons of phosphate rock are lying about in the planet’s soil. Easily extracted, stable, cheap, it enables agricultural soils to maintain their fertility. Alex Kasprak writes for The Atlantic that “phosphate, along with nitrogen, is one of the two most necessary components of synthetic fertilizer. But unlike nitrogen, which makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere, phosphate is a finite resource. And there’s no way to manufacture it.”

So, we’ll have to make do with what there is. Luckily enough, there is plenty. Or is there? The European Union in Brussels is looking into the adoption of a new regulation which would bar effectively 95% of phosphate ore from entering the EU market. Why? Cadmium.

Until the middle of last century, this heavy metal used to be in all sorts of domestic and industrial applications, exposing whoever was near to heavy doses through skin contact, inhalation or ingestion,. Cadmium in small doses is harmless – microscopic doses of just about anything can be found anywhere, if you look hard enough – as with almost all metals.

As for phosphate rock, it comes in two-forms: igneous and sedimentary. Igneous rocks are formed through the cooling of molten rock and contain low amounts of cadmium. Sedimentary rocks form over long periods of accumulation and contain microscopic amounts of cadmium. Both levels of concentration are yet to be proven as harmful, but the Russians assure Brussels that even such tiny amounts of cadmium will wreak havoc on European health.

Who’s still in the game if the Russian lobbying effort comes through?

The European Union would establish a limit of 20mg, over a few years, excluding a large proportion of the world’s phosphate resources out of the EU market. 68 billion tons of phosphate rock reserves have been identified, mapped and assessed in the world. 50 of them are in Morocco.

Then comes China, with 3. Algeria and Syria have 2. South Africa, Russia, Egypt, the United States, Jordan, and Australia have 1. Smaller deposits can be found all over the world. Only Brazil, a handful of African countries, and Finland and Russia possess igneous phosphate deposits.

The Food Administration Organization (FAO) describes: “Igneous deposits have provided about 10-20 percent of world production in the last ten years. They are exploited in the Russian Federation, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Finland and Zimbabwe but also occur in Uganda, Malawi, Sri Lanka and several other locations.”

If Russia pulls it off, it will move from being a minor supplier to the leading position on the EU market, the richer part of Europe. In such a position, it will be able to dictate how much fertilizer EU countries receive, when and at what price. It will get little competition from the other possessors of low-cadmium, which are remote from the EU, have only limited reserves to be able to come even close to meeting the substantial EU demand.

Of course, because cadmium is present only in microscopic proportions in the phosphate rock, one could wonder if this doesn’t amount to missing the forest for the trees. There are laboratory-scale processes which extract the little cadmium that there is in the phosphate, according to the type of rock. But none of them are fit for large-scale exploitation.

Brian Johnson writes for Parliament Magazine: “First, not all phosphate fertilizers can be decadmiated: there is no known technology for nitrophosphates, phosphate rock and Single Super Phosphate (SSP) which represents 30 percent of the EU market. Second, there is a misunderstanding about how new technologies are implemented at industrial levels. Just because technologies exist on paper or in laboratories, does not make them ‘available.’” Additional problems from these potential technologies need to be addressed, including a highly damaging carbon footprint and an environmental impact.

As a result, not only would Russia hold a leading position on the market, but the EU customer countries would have no alternative to which to turn to.

If the regulation comes through, only 5% of the world’s current phosphate rock will be legal in the EU. If EU policymakers walk naively into the Russian trap, the European fertilizer and farming industries will quickly face enormous cost increases, supply disruptions and limited liberty.

Moscow will say “jump,” and the EU agricultural world will ask “how high.” The most recent studies shed much doubt as to whether the considered cadmium limit would bring any benefit to public health. Hence, the necessity for the EU to design a strategy on its own. EU member states have put forward a proposal for a moderate limit of 60mg/kg, a level that would not disrupt current supplies and which would be reviewed in due course, in the light of new scientific evidence, possible developments on decadmiation and the availability of phosphate supplies on the global market. This offers a sensible way forward. Let us hope that Russian manipulation does not succeed in undermining it.

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