When Will the Phosphate Rock and Potash Run Out?

This post is the second in a series of articles dealing with resource constraints.  If you read these introductory paragraphs for the first article in the series (“When Will the Water Run Out?”), then skip past these italicized paragraphs.  While I covered resource constraints in my book, Planet In Distress, I did not try to place the depletion of various resources on a timeline.  This I will attempt to do in this series of articles, with the caveat that data on some issues and areas is sparse so, necessarily, some estimating is necessary.

My timelines are not related so much to absolute depletion of resources (is it really necessary to try and pinpoint the date when we will deplete any particular fish stock when, in fact, any reduction inocean protein availability is more or less catastrophic for the world’s poor?) but rather to the point at which resource depletion starts to measurably exert pressure on societies, forcing adaptation and increasing costs/reducing production and resulting in societal fragility, conflict, and marked suffering by the poor.  The establishment of timelines is important within the context of the thesis underlying Planet In Distress, which is this:

Sin resulted in a degree of separation of creation from its creator (for Bible texts underpinning this thesis, please see my book) which in turn resulted in death – the consequences of sin are death.  This death extended not just to plants, animals, and humans, but to the whole world and specifically to the massive, complex, and exquisitely balanced systems that God put in place to sustain life on earth – our oceanic system, fresh water system, food production system (soil and related sub-systems), atmospheric system, climate system, etc.  These systems are significantly degraded as a result of the accumulated consequences of sin, and their degradation is rapidly accelerating in our generation, leading to a multitude of natural disasters.  The rapid acceleration of these systems is placing massive pressure on human society just as humans – now numbering over seven billion – are reaching the limits of resources all over the world.  Given the sinful nature of humans, resource constraints lead to extreme tensions inside and between societies, which in turn leads to conflict, disease, famine, etc.  The entire cycle of events exactly fulfills Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24:6-8 regarding events at the close of time.

That, I admit, was more an explanation than a thesis.  I am working toward a short, concise thesis statement but am obviously not there yet.

This post talks about the mined chemicals that go into our fertilizers which, in turn, facilitate industrial agriculture the world over.  To be clear, industrial agriculture will not work without these chemicals, and we are unable to feed the world’s population without industrial agriculture.  The chemicals that are used to facilitate farming are nitrogen (which is synthesized from natural gas), potassium (mined in the form of potash), and phosphorous, mined in the form of phosphate rock.  Natural gas is about as cheap and abundant as it has ever been, so nitrogen does not concern us.  That leaves potash, which is very unlikely to run out any time soon, and phosphate rock, the supplies of which may last another 30 years or so.  But the practical answer to our question is this:  supply contraints are already being felt in poorer countries around the world, resulting in shortages which in trun affects food production and food prices, which in turn affects societal stability, which in turn drives conflict and famines and disease.  Yes, something as humble as a mined mineral can contribute, in part, to the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24:6-8.  Given the forces at play, it seems very likely that potash and phosphate rock prices will continue to climb, decreasing food availability and increasing food prices on a global basis for decades to come.

Below is a potash price chart.  It doesn’t exactly follow inflation, does it?  The price of potash has risen 500% since 2004 and peaked at a 900% rise in 2009.  The trend from here is up.  This increase in the cost of fertilizer means that producers can purchase less fertilizer, as is now happening in countries such as India and Nepal, to name just two.

The real problem, though, is phosphate rock.  Look at the price chart below.  The price for phosphate rock was pretty stable until about 2006, when traders suddenly realized how limited the supply really was and how desperately food producers needed the product (prices for all fertlizer components skyrocketed at that time and have stayed high since).   While these chemicals are only a

small piece of what is going on the world over, they are nonetheless an important piece – certainly important enough to warrant a mention in this series of articles.  And the price of fertilizers is very unlikely to come down for the simple reason that producers of phosphate rock have begun to effectively restrict exports.  China, for instance, has added a huge tariff to its phosphate rock, meaning that those who want to mine and export it in China and strongly discouraged from doing so (essentially, the Chinese government made it unprofitable).  This way, China keeps its phosphate rock for its own use, which is a big deal because so few nations have deposits of phosphate rock.  For an excellent overview of how important phosphorous rock is and how truly limited it is, see this article.  

The bottom line for this second article in this series?  We will run out of phosphate rock in 30 or so years at current rates and with current practices.  But nations are already restricting supply and crop yields and food prices are already being impacted, which incrementally moves us closer to the fulfillment of prophecy.

Next in the series:  When Will the Fish Run Out?

Scott Christiansen