EMBARGOED FOR RELEASE | March 27, 2011

Global crunch in supplies of key fertilizer could threaten food supply and raise prices

WASHINGTON, March 27, 2011 — Global production of phosphorus fertilizer could peak and decline later this century, causing shortages and price spikes that jeopardize world food production, five major scientific societies warned today. The crisis will come at a time when Earth’s population may surge past 9 billion.

Rice, corn, wheat and other staple food crops require phosphorus, which along with nitrogen and potassium, is one of the three key fertilizer substances that sustain world food supply. Projections indicate that world population will rise from 6.8 billion today to 8.9 billion in 2050.

Chemistry for a Sustainable Global Society warns not only about “peak phosphorus” — an echo of the more familiar concerns about “peak oil” — but raises red flags about the supply of other natural resources where monopolies or political instability could cut off supplies or inflate prices. They include rare earth elements (REEs) and precious metals like lithium, platinum and palladium that are needed to produce computers, mobile phones, rechargeable batteries, solar cells, fuel cells, medications, pollution control devices for cars and other key products.

“It is a national security concern for many nations that a small group of countries control the remaining stocks of many precious and vital resources,” the white paper states. “Politically motivated national policies restricting export of certain minerals are already being put into practice. Limited availability and high prices of scarce natural resources will quickly start to affect industries across many different sectors.”

The report results from a four-day summit sponsored by the Chinese Chemical Society, the German Chemical Society, the Chemical Society of Japan, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the American Chemical Society. Thirty international experts on materials science participated in the event, which is part of an ongoing series of summits being held by the societies to seek solutions to some of the world’s most daunting challenges.

“The chemist has a mandate to counsel society on the possible solutions that can be achieved through chemistry,” said Ryoji Noyori, Ph.D., who shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in the report’s forward. Noyori is president of RIKEN, a non-profit research institute supported by the Japanese government, and a professor at Nagoya University. “It is to be hoped that our recommendations will be widely disseminated among governments and societies throughout the world as we strive together to achieve the ideal and sustainable international community.”

Shortages of phosphorus in the soil are especially acute in Australia, the world’s seventh largest wheat producer, and in sub-Sahara Africa, where phosphorous content in the soil limits crop growth and millions of people already face malnutrition and periodic famine. The report cites the likelihood that resources of phosphate rock, mined to produce fertilizer, will be depleted within the next 30-100 years. At present, no substitute exists for that natural source of phosphorous fertilizer. Two-thirds of the world’s phosphorus resources are in China, Morocco and the Western Sahara. Demand for phosphorus is already soaring, with the price of diammonium phosphate fertilizer (which also contains nitrogen) doubling in recent years.

Chemistry for a Sustainable Global Society calls for technological breakthroughs to guarantee supplies of phosphorus for future generations. It expresses optimism that chemistry can develop new materials that allow humanity to tap vast new sources of phosphorus, including substances in rivers, oceans and soil, and also to develop technology to extract phosphate from water.

The report also points out that shortages of other elements essential for modern technology, from computers to hybrid cars, will occur unless similar efforts are made to find replacements or improve the efficiency of extracting and using existing materials. These materials include lithium, a component of batteries and an ingredient in some pharmaceuticals, as well as platinum, used in fuel cells and as catalysts — substances that improve the efficiency of large-scale chemical manufacturing processes. Other elements in short supply include REEs — a collection of elements that are essential for the production of computers, hybrid-electric cars, military weapons and other high-tech products.

“Little public awareness exists about the uncertain supplies of these key materials that we face today and the potential future shortages,” said Nancy B. Jackson, Ph.D., president of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. Jackson is with the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. “Secure, adequate supplies of these materials are essential for production of food, medicines, computers and hundreds of other products. Coming as it does during the International Year of Chemistry, the report demonstrates how the world’s major scientific societies can collaborate in addressing great global challenges. This is chemistry working for a better life.”

  • Chemistry for a Sustainable Global Society outlines five key areas in which materials chemists, through collaboration with other scientists, industry and policy makers, can seize exciting opportunities to address global challenges. Materials chemistry will underpin many of the required solutions to some of the most important energy and environmental problems in today’s society, including:
  • A growing population and increasing living standards are increasing world demand for energy. Demand may soon outstrip supply. Materials scientists will help to develop new, sustainable energy conversion and storage technologies that can meet future energy demands without increasing harmful emissions of CO2.
  • Projections suggest that Earth’s climate may warm significantly in the next 100 years, largely as a result of CO2 emissions from human activity. Materials scientists can help to reduce CO2 emissions by improving carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems and developing novel ways of activating and using CO2 as a raw material for fuels and chemical feedstocks rather than as waste.
  • Almost 90 percent of world oil production goes to the production of fuel, with the remainder used to make medicines, plastics and hundreds of other products. Materials chemists can help to reduce global dependency on fossil fuels and feedstocks by developing methods to efficiently obtain petroleum from low-quality sources and by developing processes to efficiently and sustainably utilize fossil-fuel alternatives.
  • Supplies of scarce natural resources are dwindling at an alarming rate, and shortages will hit within a generation. Materials chemistry can help to reduce, replace and recycle the use of scarce natural resources in many applications, as well as to develop alternative new materials based on earth-abundant elements.
  • The pressures created by a growing world population are damaging the environment. Materials chemists can use the Principles of Green Chemistry to meet the world’s energy, material and water needs in ways that are non-harmful and sustainable. New technologies can be developed to better monitor and remove air, soil and water pollutants from the environment.

Funding for the symposium came from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the German Research Foundation, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the United Kingdom Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Full texts of the report are available from m_bernstein@acs.org.

Other comments on Chemistry for a Sustainable Global Society:

David Phillips, president, Royal Society of Chemistry:
“The focus on global warming sometimes blinds us to the other consequences of increase in the world population and the depletion of other resources needed to sustain and develop the advanced lifestyles we crave. This report warns us of the fact that resources are finite, and in some instances are already in very short supply, but also gives the positive message that chemists can and will provide some of the solutions needed to move to a sustainable world."

Prof. Jiannian Yao, President of the Chinese Chemical Society
“Sustainable development is a strong voice of our time. It is also the mission of chemists all over the world. This white paper summarizes the suggestions on solving the global challenges in energy, environment and resources from a group of prominent materials chemists. It does not only provide a perspective guidance for chemists, but also point out a roadmap of sustainable developments for publics. This year is the International Year of Chemistry. It is just timely and necessary to release this white paper and I am sure it will largely increase the public appreciation of chemical sciences.”

Professor Markus Antonietti, scientific committee member and leader of the German CS3 delegation:
“This is one of the most important projects I was ever allowed to contribute to. Addressing the very big tasks makes active scientists usually very skeptical, but I was impressed by the highest quality, the very constructive working atmosphere and the cohesiveness of values of all the experts. In spite of the very different cultural backgrounds and societal value systems of the nations involved, this is very special. It is indeed a global document, dealing with global issues. However, the depletion of scarce resources, remediating the pollution of air, water and soil, or using the earth’s sustainable energy, all these are obviously topics where national, single-handed efforts are meaningless. Contrary to the ‘Club of Rome’, this document is not only analyzing the admittedly critical situation, it also offers positive proposals on how to deal with the situation based on science and technology. This report shows that we have chances to deal with this, and it will be chemistry that will move global society out of this trap.”

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