1507 - 1508 Phosphate Mining: an Unsustainable Business

tl_files/aefjn-images/im_aefjn_ntw/Visits of the Secretariat/2014 Senegal/Engins.jpgCICODEV Africa and AEFJN have conducted a case study of the impact of land acquisition for phosphate rock mining on the community of Koudiadiène in Senegal. The study exposes the consequences for the local economy and the environment as well as for the livelihoods and food security of the villagers. The phosphate rock mining industry is concentrated in a few countries and is subject to geopolitical dynamics. The phosphate derived from the rock is a key ingredient in chemical fertilizers used in industrial agriculture. Therefore the industry claims that securing a reliable supply of phosphate rocks is essential to food security. However, our study demonstrates that phosphate rock extraction is instead creating food insecurity for local communities around the mining sites due to loss of land, livelihood and income. At the same time it is a known fact that excessive use of fertilizer alters the soil’s chemical composition and depletes its quality thus compromising long term food security. So, this debate centres essentially on the choice of agricultural model and food system that best serves humanity and the earth. Organic family farming has the capacity to stimulate natural regeneration of phosphorus which makes the mining of phosphate unnecessary. Moreover, family farming is capable of reducing rural poverty and improves food security by stimulating local economies through employment, increased income and livelihoods for local communities.



Phosphate mining at the service of agribusiness


“Ironically, phosphorus represents both a scarce non-renewable resource for living beings and a pollutant for living systems”.[1]


Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant growth therefore very important in the production of food for human consumption. With every harvest, nutrients are extracted from the soil and there is a need to return these nutrients to ensure long term food security. Currently, the agricultural sector accounts for 80-90% of the global demand[2] for phosphate (naturally occuring chemical compound containing phosphorus, oxygen and other elements). While organic farming uses techniques that enhance the recycling of soil nutrients, industrial agriculture is mainly sourcing phosphates to produce fertilizers from mined rock phosphate, whose reserves are finite. Demand for these fertilizers is increasing because of policymakers’ tendency to consider industrial agriculture a better way to address the increased demand for food (crops, animal and dairy products) and biofuels. In the light of the increasing popularity of fertilizers, some analysts predict a peak in phosphate rock production in the coming decades, when demand will outstrip supply. However, when this peak will be reached cannot be exactly pinpointed because there is a lot of debate concerning the estimates of current phosphate rock reserves. On the one hand, some models speak of a risk of resource depletion in the medium term (20-30 years)[3].  On the other, some analysts believe there will not be a shortage of Phosphate Rock (PR) any time soon, since significant new deposits have been discovered in the last five years and may still be discovered. New resources will be prepared for mining; exploration for offshore projects is underway and improving technology will allow more difficult extraction.[4] However, as we will show below, organic agriculture allows for natural regeneration of phosphorus, making non-renewable phosphate rock extraction redundant.


The EU has added phosphate rock to its list of critical raw materials. A raw material is designated as “critical” when it is of high economic importance and has a high supply risk[5]. The EU is almost entirely dependent on imports for its supply of PR and there are only very limited reserves in Finland.[6]According to the Commission the “corporate concentration” in the sector of phosphate rock mining is high, meaning that just a handful of companies control a large market share.[7] On top of that, the large majority (85-90%) of current reserves is concentrated in just a few countries Morocco (+ Western Sahara), China, Algeria, Syria and Jordan[8]. About 70% of global production takes place in China, the United States and Morocco, the first two mainly producing for their domestic markets and applying trade barriers (export quotas and taxes).  The main exporting countries of phosphate rock are Morocco, Jordan, Peru, Egypt, Syria, Russia and Algeria.[9]


Currently the EU imports its phosphate rock mainly from Morocco, Russia, Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia and imports phosphate-based fertilizers mainly from Russia, Morocco and Tunisia. Geopolitical factors could disrupt the supply of PR for the EU like, for instance, the tense diplomatic relations with Russia. On top of that, the main supplier Morocco extracts the phosphate rock mostly from the Western Sahara which is still a contested area. Other suppliers like Tunisia, Egypt and Israel also have their own political challenges. Then there are Syria and Iraq that dispose of significant PR-reserves but are hindered by the difficult security situation linked with rise of Islamic State.


Clearly, the EU is looking to diversify its sourcing of PR, because supply from the above-mentioned countries might be disrupted. Senegal is quite a small producer in the sector[10]. However, it is an attractive supplier to the EU because of its stable political environment. However, as our study demonstrates the rush for PR in Senegal disrupts social peace and has negative socio-economic and environmental consequences for local communities. The thirst for phosphates manifests itself when machines are extracting 24/7 with non-stop pollution and noise. For now estimated reserves in Senegal are limited compared to the other producing countries, but as the case study shows, when new deposits are found an entire village might simply be displaced to allow for extraction.



Promoting non-sustainable agriculture


The industry emphasizes that a secure supply of PR is essential for food security. The mantra is “No phosphorus = No food”. Since in western countries most agricultural practice is industrial and heavily dependent on fertilizers, policymakers of these countries are keen to secure access, as demonstrated by the listing of PR as a critical raw material for which priority actions will be determined. Again, it seems that the industry and policymakers are mainly concerned with food security in the EU, but African family farming, if supported, could do a great deal to reduce global poverty and improve food security. It is true that plants need phosphorus to grow, but it can be regenerated in a natural way without applying fertilizers. While the ecosystem increasingly has to deal with the effects of climate change, policymakers should envision recycling more phosphorus as well as reducing the use of phosphate-based fertilizers.  So the debate on phosphate essentially comes down to the debate on which agricultural model serves humanity better. It might simply not be wise to continue mining a finite resource on a large scale, when it can be recycled and its regeneration stimulated in nature. As our study demonstrates, phosphate mining is causing damage to the environment, food security and the local economy and the mined resource is used inefficiently in industrial food production, a lot of phosphorus being simply wasted through excessive use of fertilizers.


Stopping the excessive use of phosphate-based fertilizers would be a first way to reduce phosphorus losses. For farmers it comes down to determining the “critical value” of phosphorus for giving optimal yields. Above this critical value phosphorus is lost and risks being wasted through the surface waters. The risk of overuse of fertilizers is more apparent when one considers that about 70% of farmland worldwide has phosphorus surpluses, so reducing fertilizer use especially in these areas will save many tonnes of PR that will not need to be mined and processed. According to Greenpeace, 70 to 80% of European soils could maintain the same yields without adding phosphorus. When phosphorus is applied in excess it risks being lost through surface waters via run-off, leaching or soil erosion, ending up polluting lakes, rivers and oceans. [11]


The increased consumption of meat and dairy products (especially in Asia) has increased the demand for animal feed and thus crops and land. However, in the industrial model, the disconnection between livestock and crop farming is also a cause of massive phosphorus loss in the industrial system. Often, animal feed is produced on croplands faraway (sometimes continents), from the animals held in confinement. As a consequence, the manure containing a lot of phosphate and other nutrients cannot be used on the farmland producing the animal feed and so is wasted. However, in organic farming, manure is re-used to increase fertility on crop lands. In this way, inclusive ecological farming, reintegrating land for both food production and livestock, can produce synergies improving soil fertility.[12]



Organic farming: keeping soils healthy without fertilizers


Organic farming techniques exist to ensure good soil quality and fertility while preventing soil destruction and depletion. One of them is composting. Maintaining the topsoil with crop residues, compost and manure reduces phosphorus loss and increases the activity of microorganisms, improving the nutrient cycle in soils.[13]The added organic matter improves soil structure and biodiversity allowing extraction of essential nutrients during harvest as well as their continuous recycling; such soil recyclers include active beneficial bacteria and fungi and others.[14]


Another technique beneficial to biodiversity is polyculture. It replenishes the soil with nutrients and a variety of plants can naturally ward off pests and produce more nutritious food. However, such techniques are contrary to productivist agriculture where profits are based on yields, so crop rotation and leaving lands fallow would slash company profit and is therefore not considered.[15] The contrary effect is produced by industrial farming based on mono-cropping which destroys soil fertility, by stripping the soil of nutrients and critical soil microbes. Farmlands are saturated with toxins from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers all of which might cause pollution of groundwater.[16]


Closing the loop of phosphorus losses by stimulating natural regeneration of phosphorus and by recycling is imperative to create a more sustainable and efficient use of Phosphorus. Improved collection and composting of residues from farms, food processing plants, sewage systems and households both in urban and rural areas are ways forward.[17]


Our current industrial agricultural system and the global economy that supports it are inherently unsustainable. Extracting a limited resource, such as phosphorus, and sending it to landfills or dumping it in the ocean doesn’t make much sense.”[18]



Dismantling the myth of the agribusiness


The logic of the industry is quite straightforward: a rising population needs more food that can “only” be produced via a model of chemical large scale industrial farming. The agribusiness claims that large farms are more productive and efficient; however, recent studies demonstrate that medium-sized organic farms are more productive than large-scale farms. Organic farming could produce on average 30% more food per hectare than industrial farming (this rises to 80% more in developing countries) and GRAIN showed that small scale farmers are more productive per hectare than large farms.[19]So there is a case for investing more in agro-ecological farming because it is clearly better for the environment and biodiversity and produces more nutritious and healthy food.[20] In developing countries organic farming contributes to the local economy by providing employment, income and livelihoods, thus improving food security and reducing rural poverty.[21]


Another flaw in the logic of the industry is that fertilizers would be instrumental in ensuring food security. However, this would hold only for industrialized countries. The biggest consumers of fertilizers are North America and Europe (75%), while most food insecure people are in the South. As such phosphorus should go to the most food insecure regions and phosphorus deficient soils in poor countries, preferably using sustainable techniques as mentioned above and mining the least PR possible.[22]On top of that, farmers in developing countries are unable to afford expensive fertilizers. The industry basically produces food for consumers with purchasing power, while most of the food insecure people lack exactly this. So producing for markets will not provide food where it is most needed – in the mouths of the poor.


The industry claims it is helping food security. However, the extraction of raw phosphate rock, the transformation phase (cleaning the PR) as well as the end product, fertilizer, has a questionable effect on food security. Firstly, the end product, fertilizer: the excessive use of fertilizers in the longer term is depleting soils, rendering them less fertile, thus having a negative effect on food security. Secondly, the cleaning of phosphate rocks can cause environmental damage, if it is not properly managed. For example, in Togo a cleaning facility for phosphate rock expels its used water directly into the ocean; as a consequence fishing communities in neighbouring country Benin complain that the phosphate pollution has killed off a lot of fish. Local fishermen must now go further into ocean but they do not have the technical means to do this. Consequently this has a negative effect on the incomes of fishermen and on food security/sovereignty in these communities.[23] Thirdly, the extraction phase has a negative effect on food security and environment as our case study of Koudiadiène, Senegal, shows. Koudiadiène and other villages in the region such as Lamlam are covered with a white carpet of toxic dust. The phosphate rocks are extracted via open mine pits, emitting a lot of toxic dust, which has a negative effect on public health (lung diseases), and also on soil fertility and biodiversity. In effect, the plants covered in toxic dust are slowly perishing. As a result harvests have gone down and the remaining crops contain toxic dust and are not fit for human or animal consumption. There are reports that sheep and goats have been killed by the dust. All of these have negative effects on livelihoods, incomes and food security of local communities. Furthermore, the case study demonstrates that the mining operation in Koudiadiène does does not respect the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security nor the Senegalese legislation (both the mining code and the environmental code). As a consequence of the loss of land, the food security as well as the income of the villagers are threatened because there will be less land for food crops (such as millet and sorghum) and cash crops (such as peanuts).So when making claims about food security, the PR-industry should also assess its effect on long term food and nutrition security throughout its supply chain.



Gino Brunswijck

Policy Officer

[1] Quoted from “Phosphorus in Agriculture: problems and Solutions”, by Reyes Tirado & Michelle Allsopp, Greenpeace Research Laboratories, 2012, p. 7. Retrieved from http://www.greenpeace.to/greenpeace/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Tirado-and-Allsopp-2012-Phosphorus-in-Agriculture-Technical-Report-02-2012.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3]Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, “Submission to the Public Consultation on the Raw Materials Initiative”, 2010, retrieved from:   http://phosphorusfutures.net/files/GPRI_submission_EU_CriticalRawMaterials.pdf

INRA, LERECO, “The World Phosphates Market: What Risk for the European Union?”, by Bérengère

Lécuyer, 2014, retrieved from : http://ec.europa.eu/transparency/regexpert/index.cfm?do=groupDetail.groupDetailDoc&id=13828&no=33

[4] The Crop Site, “World Reserves of Phosphate Rock - Dynamic, Unfolding Story”, 2013, retrieved from:  http://www.thecropsite.com/articles/1621/world-reserves-of-phosphate-rock-dynamic-unfolding-story/

PhosphatePrice.Com, “Geopolitics and the (In)Security of EU’s Phosphate Imports”, by Dr Puneet Parikh, 2014 retrieved from:  http://phosphateprice.com/geopolitics-and-the-insecurity-of-eus-phosphate-imports/

[5]European Commission, DG Enterprise and Industry, “Defining ‘critical’ Raw Materials”, Archived 02/02/2015, retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/raw-materials/critical/index_en.htm

[6] European Commission, “Press Release: 20 critical raw materials - major challenge for EU industry”, 2014, retrieved from: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-599_en.htm

Phosphorus Platform, “Phosphate rock in EU Critical Raw Materials list”, 2014, retrieved from: 


[7] European Commission, DG Enterprise and Industry,  “Report on Critical Raw Materials for the EU”, 2014, retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/raw-materials/files/docs/crm-report-on-critical-raw-materials_en.pdf

[8]INRA, LERECO , ibid.

[9]INRA, LERECO , ibid.

PhosphatePrice.Com, Ibid

[10]For data on Senegal and other producing countries reserves and production: http://www.mapsofworld.com/minerals/world-rock-phosphate-producers.html

[11]Greenpeace, ibid.

[12]Greenpeace, ibid.

[13] Greenpeace, ibid.

[14] http://permaculturenews.org/2009/07/23/phosphorus-matters-ii-keeping-phosphorus-on-farms/

[15] Worcester Polytechnic Institute, “Polyculture: An Approach to Sustainable Farming”, by, Hurial Dutia, Miranda Aufiero, Alex Becker, http://www.wpi.edu/Images/CMS/UGP/Polyculture.pdf

[16] The Permaculture Research Institute(A), “Phosphorus Matters”, 2009, retrieved from: http://permaculturenews.org/2009/01/14/phosphorus-matters/

Greenpeace, ibid.

[17]Greenpeace, Ibid

[18] The Permaculture Research Institute (B), “Phosphorus Matters II -  Keeping Phosphorus on Farms”, 2009, retrieved from: http://permaculturenews.org/2009/07/23/phosphorus-matters-ii-keeping-phosphorus-on-farms/

[19]The Permaculture Research Institute (B), ibid.

Greenpeace, ibid,

GRAIN, “Hungry for Land: Small Farmers Feed the World with less than, a quarter of all farmland”, 2014 retrieved from:  https://www.grain.org/article/entries/4929-hungry-for-land-small-farmers-feed-the-world-with-less-than-a-quarter-of-all-farmland

[20]The Permaculture Research Institute (B), ibid.

[21]Greenpeace & GRAIN, ibid.

[22]The Permaculture Research Institute (B), ibid.

[23] Le Monde Blogs, “ Le phosphate togolais à l’assaut des côtes béninoises”, by Hermann Boko, 2013, retrieved from :


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