Argument

Peak Phosphorus

It's an essential, if underappreciated component of our daily lives, and a key link in the global food chain. And it's running out.

From Kansas to China's Sichuan province, farmers treat their fields with phosphorus-rich fertilizer to increase the yield of their crops. What happens next, however, receives relatively little attention. Large amounts of this resource are lost from farm fields, through soil erosion and runoff, and down swirling toilets, through our urine and feces. Although seemingly mundane, this process cannot continue indefinitely. Our dwindling supply of phosphorus, a primary component underlying the growth of global agricultural production, threatens to disrupt food security across the planet during the coming century. This is the gravest natural resource shortage you've never heard of.

The root of this problem has previously been the subject of presidential concern. In a message to Congress in 1938, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned that the phosphorus content of American agricultural land "has greatly diminished." This shortage, Roosevelt warned, could cause low crop yields and poor-quality produce, detrimentally affecting "the physical health and economic security of the people of the nation."

Phosphorus is used extensively for a variety of key functions in all living things, including the construction of DNA and cell membranes. As it is relatively rare in the Earth's crust, a lack of phosphorus is often the limiting factor in the growth of plants and algae. In humans, it plays an essential role in bone formation. Without a steady supply of this resource, global agricultural production will face a bottleneck, and humankind's growing population will suffer a serious nutrition shortage.

The world's reliance on phosphorus is an unappreciated aspect of the "Green Revolution," a series of agricultural innovations that made it possible to feed the approximately 4.2 billion-person increase in the global population since 1950. This massive expansion of global agricultural production required a simultaneous increase in the supply of key resources, including water and nitrogen. Without an increase in phosphorus, however, crops would still have lacked the resources necessary to fuel a substantial increase in production, and the Green Revolution would not have gotten off the ground.

Roosevelt's warning was prescient and stimulated agricultural engineers to find an effective, albeit temporary, solution. To satisfy the world's growing food demand, they mobilized global mining efforts in ancient, phosphorus-rich marine deposits. By 2008, industrial farmers were applying an annual 17 million metric tons of mined phosphorus on their fields. Demand is expanding at around 3 percent a year -- a rate that is likely to accelerate due to rising prosperity in the developing world (richer people consume more meat) and the burgeoning bioenergy sector, which also requires phosphorus to support crop-based biofuels.

Our supply of mined phosphorus is running out. Many mines used to meet this growing demand are degrading, as they are increasingly forced to access deeper layers and extract a lower quality of phosphate-bearing rock (phosphate is the chemical form in which nearly all phosphorus is found). Some initial analyses from scientists with the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative estimate that there will not be sufficient phosphorus supplies from mining to meet agricultural demand within 30 to 40 years. Although more research is clearly needed, this is not a comforting time scale.

The geographic concentration of phosphate mines also threatens to usher in an era of intense resource competition. Nearly 90 percent of the world's estimated phosphorus reserves are found in five countries: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. In comparison, the 12 countries that make up the OPEC cartel control only 75 percent of the world's oil reserves.

This fact could spark international tension and even influence how countries attempt to draw their internal boundaries. Many of Morocco's phosphate mines are in Western Sahara, a disputed independent territory that is occupied by Morocco and the site of growing international human rights concerns. Reflecting these concerns, U.N.-sanctioned export restrictions on phosphate and other resources are now in place, though the efficacy of the bans is incomplete. China, the country with the largest phosphorus reserves after Morocco, imposed a 135 percent tariff on the resource as part of 2008's complex series of events in which rising fuel and fertilizer costs led to rapid increases in food prices. The tariff effectively eliminated exports. Although the tariff was subsequently lifted as the 2008 food crisis faded, the imposition of this sort of trade barrier could become a regular occurrence as supplies dwindle worldwide.

The United States has only 12 phosphorus mines. The supplies from the most productive mine, in Florida, are declining rapidly -- it will be commercially depleted within 20 years. The United States exported phosphorus for decades but now imports about 10 percent of its supply, all from Morocco, with which it signed a free trade agreement in 2004.

The effects of this resource shortage will be felt long before the last phosphorus atom is extracted from the last mine. Increased demand for fertilizer and the decreased supply of phosphorus exports will result in higher prices, significantly affecting millions of farmers in the developing world who live on the brink of bankruptcy and starvation. Rising fertilizer prices could tip this balance.

Already, signs are emerging that our current practices cannot continue for long. Between 2003 and 2008, phosphate fertilizer prices rose approximately 350 percent. In 2008, rising food prices sparked riots in more than 40 countries. Although the spike in fertilizer prices was only partially responsible for the higher food prices, the riots illustrate the social upheaval caused by disruptions to the world's food supply. The 2008 food riots were only stopped by government promises of food subsidies -- a viable strategy only as long as governments can afford the ever-increasing costs of food support.

Establishing a reliable phosphorus supply is essential for assuring long-term, sustainable food security. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for phosphate rock by eliminating our wasteful practices. This will require a combination of low-tech and high-tech solutions, including efforts to prevent soil erosion, development of more-targeted methods of fertilizer application, and the creation of new, phosphorus-efficient crops, which produce a larger yield per phosphorus unit applied. Fortunately, unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus can be used over and over -- this is what occurs in natural ecosystems, where it is recycled innumerable times from its first mobilization from the Earth's crust to its eventual deposition into lake and ocean sediments.

If we fail to meet this challenge, humanity faces a Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced. The geopolitical impacts of such disruptions will be severe, as an increasing number of states fail to provide their citizens with a sufficient food supply. This dark scenario need not, however, be our fate. If we are successful in rising to the phosphorus sustainability challenge, as well as other aspects of sustainable agriculture, we can look forward to a future in which families, communities, and countries are healthy and secure in their nutrition and where all live in a world with cleaner rivers, lakes, and oceans.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Turkey Takes Sides

Criticism of Israel is the hallmark of Prime Minister Erdogan's new Middle East policy -- but not all Turks are on board.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit showed once again that he and the United States are simply not seeing eye to eye. The White House statement following Erdogan's Tuesday meeting with President Barack Obama stated that the two leaders "affirmed the strategic partnership between their countries" and "discussed their joint interest in achieving the nonproliferation goals of the Summit," including halting Iran's development of a nuclear weapon. But this was purely rhetoric: In fact, the two countries are agreeing on little these days.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has developed into the primary sticking point between the longtime allies. The White House tackles the Middle East peace process and the Iranian nuclear dilemma as parallel but separate issues. Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, Turkey considers the two issues inseparable. For Erdogan, what happens in Gaza has a direct connection with Iran's nuclear ambitions. And his deep emotional attachment to the Palestinian cause is preventing Turkey from playing a constructive role in the conflict's resolution.

For the past several years, Ankara has proudly touted its position as a valuable mediator in the Middle East. However, it surrendered its role as a voice of reason when Erdogan became obsessed with criticizing Israel at every turn. Erdogan's comments on Middle East foreign policy, from his January 2009 outburst at Davos to his recent remarks at the nuclear summit, almost inevitably end with a verbal assault on Israel's transgressions. Some of those rebukes are surely earned, but by constantly beating the same horse, Erdogan has lost nuance in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

As a Turk, I don't wish to invite accusations of faithlessness or disloyalty from my fellow countrymen. I am the daughter of Turkish parents who blessed our home with prayer five times a day and went on hajj two decades ago. I was raised as a Muslim. Yet I believe the Israeli Foreign Ministry's recent statement, which claimed Erdogan was giving the impression that he "is seeking to integrate with the Muslim world at Israel's expense," was precisely correct. 

Many of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in Damascus in January 2009 to protest the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip carried banners praising Erdogan for supporting the Palestinian cause. However, as Erdogan's populist rhetoric wins over the Arab street, Turkey's relationships with moderate Arab leaders and Israel have faltered. Kadri Gursel, one of Turkey's leading foreign policy columnists, has warned that the country's efforts to integrate with the West would suffer if Erdogan's ambition "is to be the Hugo Chavez of the Middle East." Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for his part, compared Erdogan not only to the Venezuelan president but to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. 

The transformation of Turkey's foreign alliances has been accompanied by a narrowing of domestic freedoms. It is increasingly difficult to speak out against the AKP. When I was growing up in Ankara I never thought that one day my school friends and I would complain that we felt like outsiders in our own homeland. We're gradually becoming a minority -- but the new landscape is as yet unclear.

"Turkey is not the issue, but Erdogan is," stated Lieberman. I disagree. Turks may not all hold the same opinions, but their elected prime minister does have a right to speak on their behalf. That is what makes Erdogan's statements so disturbing. The prime minister takes great pride in speaking bluntly against Israeli, European, and even U.S. leaders. But I don't remember him speaking as plainly to any Muslim leader.

I don't think anyone felt comfortable watching the Palestinians suffer during Operation Cast Lead. But Hamas shares significant responsibility for what happened. If the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a separatist Kurdish terrorist organization, were to attack Turkey with the rockets used by Hamas, human rights concerns would not be the first priority of the Turks or the Turkish military. This is why some Turks are deeply troubled by the fact that, while Erdogan criticizes Israel for using disproportionate force, he does not remind his friends in Hamas and Hezbollah that they, too, have responsibilities.

When Erdogan is not harping on Israel's Gaza offensive, he is criticizing its nuclear capability. These attacks are surely one of the reasons why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently decided not to attend the nuclear summit in Washington. Erdogan called on the international community to press Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and criticized the United States and its allies for advancing a double standard toward Iran and Israel. "It is important that we try to take steps to overcome those difficulties, so we can strengthen peace in the Middle East," he said at the summit.

In principle, Erdogan shares Obama's ideal of a world without nuclear weapons. However, the best way to champion this cause is to lead by example -- and on this front, the Turkish prime minister has done very little. The United States hosts approximately 90 warheads in Turkey, at the Incirlik Air Base. So far, Erdogan has done nothing to ensure their departure from Turkish soil. "It costs a lot of money to keep them there," Henri Barkey, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. "If Turkey wants them to be taken away, the U.S. will do it immediately. But if [the United States] considers doing it and Turkey says 'no,' it won't remove those nuclear warheads."

In the end, all issues seem to come back to Erdogan's obsession with Israel. It is easy to use Israel as a scapegoat, as Erdogan attempts to redefine Turkish identity and its national security interests. Erdogan's constant rhetorical assaults on Israel do have a profound effect on Turkish public opinion, slowly convincing Turks that it is Israel, not a nuclear Iran, that is the primary threat to peace.

The prime minister argues that he is not shifting the country from West to East -- he is still a vocal advocate of Turkey's EU accession, for example. However, he knows well that his popularity on the Arab street is not due to the Arab world's appreciation for Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, but because he is taking their side against Israel and its Western allies.

As a Turk, I have watched these developments with growing concern. Turkey's leadership cannot help advance peace and stability if it chooses to see Israel as an enemy. Turkey is a vital balancer in the region, and it can and should remain as the go-between between Israel, the Arab world, and the West.

Unfortunately, Erdogan's leadership has created a dangerous vacuum in the Middle East. Without Turkish leadership, the international community will be severely hampered in its efforts to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program. This will shift the regional balance of power and truly endanger Turkey's security. When this day comes, Erdogan might still try to blame Israel and the United States -- but the truth is that the only person he will have to blame is himself.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images