If the world tried to get by without spreading fertiliser on the land, there would be 2bn too many people to survive. Some 40% of world food production is directly linked to fertilizer applications – with China, India, the United States and Brazil the main consumers of such nutrients.
Current low levels of grain stocks underline the need to grow more crops, and therefore to use more fertilisers. This includes phosphate, for which there is no substitute in agricultural use.
In shipping terms, the sea routes for phosphate trades are well worn and many of them relate to Morocco’s strong position in production and reserves, alongside six other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Looking into the future, it is conceivable that the Americas could play a greater role in trade patterns.
Despite its importance, with the global phosphate rock concentrate market, for instance, amounting to 191m tonnes, this must-have mineral is little talked about. Mostly, phosphate is just one aspect of large fertiliser conglomerates or government-controlled companies.
Phosphate is 23% of the global fertiliser ‘cake,’ with potash amounting to 16% and nitrogen 61%. Phosphate facilitates root development, promotes efficiency in water use, encourages early maturity of plants, and gives higher yields. Global fertilizer consumption is forecast to grow by 45% between 2005 and 2030, and Morocco is becoming an increasingly big player in phosphate, with one-third or more of the merchant market. It is a kind of ‘swing producer’ and cuts back when the price of concentrate starts to weaken. In 2011, Morocco’s exports were 9.8m tonnes, or 36% of total world exports of 27m tonnes. The North African country has 14% of world concentrate production, and 70% of reserves.
Wherever production is increasing, quality is declining. In the past 21 years, US annual production of concentrate has fallen 39%, to 28.4m tonnes. Once a net exporter, the US has become an ever greater net importer, in 2011 to the tune of 3.3m tonnes, or 10% of US consumption.