BusinessWeek has a look at a key agricultural input commodity, phosphate - Phosphate: Morocco's White Gold.
Miners have been working in Khouribga for almost a century, but only now is the area poised to become central to the global economy. Back in the 1920s pioneers started tunneling through the earth here, digging through layers of sediment formed under an ancient sea, looking for phosphate-rich rock and occasionally plucking out the tooth of a 30-million-year-old shark. The phosphate extracted from the rock, used in fertilizer, detergent, food additives, and more recently lithium-ion batteries, sold for decades in its raw state for less than $40 per metric ton. Those days are gone. It's currently trading at about $130.
This is good news for King Mohammed VI, 47, who owns more than half the world's phosphate reserves. James Prokopanko, chief executive officer of Plymouth (Minn.)-based fertilizer giant Mosaic (MOS), has called Morocco the Saudi Arabia of phosphate, with all that implies about the King's power to influence prices and economies. Mohammed's strategy, by most accounts, is to drive the commodity's price higher yet—which means the cost of making everything from corn syrup to iPads will be going up as well. ...
Phosphate, when used as fertilizer, is the irreplaceable engine powering modern agriculture, and its reserves are in decline almost everywhere except Morocco. Most phosphate mines, including those in the U.S., which produces 17 percent of the global supply, have been in a downward spiral for the last decade, running out of quality rock and hindered by environmental regulation. That has forced companies to look farther afield for additional supplies. Earlier this year, Mosaic spent $385 million for a 35 percent stake in a Peruvian mine to supply rock to its phosphate operations in the U.S. and South America. Meanwhile, Australia's mining giant BHP Billiton (BHP) has been threatening to take over Canada's PotashCorp (POT), a major supplier of both potash and phosphate.
Even a temporary phosphate shortage could affect a range of U.S. industries. Phosphate fertilizer is used on just about every crop, though most in the U.S. goes to the 13 billion bushels of corn grown each year to make everything from corn syrup to cattle feed to ethanol. When prices climbed tenfold in 2007 and 2008, retailers and farmers scrambled to build local fertilizer warehouses as a buffer. Now, according to Dirk Lohry, owner of Nutra-Flo, a crop and animal nutrient manufacturer in Sioux City, Iowa, many of those warehouses stand empty as supplies are being used too quickly to build inventory. The prospect of a shortage has become serious enough that the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Energy Dept. recently assigned an analyst to study the issue; she was not permitted to speak publicly because of "geopolitical sensitivities."
One could look at the 2007-08 food crisis for clues to how a shortage might play out. At that time, rising food prices led to riots across Africa and Asia—the Pakistani Army even stepped in to defend warehouses and farms. Before the crisis was over, China had levied a 135 percent export tariff on its phosphate to protect its domestic food supply; phosphate there is still taxed at 110 percent at the height of the buying season.
The scale of Morocco's phosphate wealth was officially verified in September, when the International Fertilizer Development Center released its long-awaited update on global phosphate resources. Morocco's portion went from the 5.7 billion metric tons still cited in U.S. Geologic Survey reports, to 50 billion metric tons—85 percent of the world's total. Even with 170 million metric tons of concentrated phosphate changing hands each year, the Moroccans likely have at least 300 to 400 years of rock available. Talal Zouaoui, OCP's director of communications, won't agree or disagree with estimates, but says in an e-mail that Morocco has "significant reserves," and notes that reserves denote only those quantities that countries have discovered and deem economically viable to extract.
With a growing world population consuming more grain, more meat, and more biofuels, demand is expected to rise at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year, according to the International Fertilizer Assn. Some experts, like Dana Cordell, co-founder of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, predict that phosphate production will "peak" within the next 50 years.
Not all phosphate becomes fertilizer: About 15 percent is turned into detergents or food additives, such as the tangy phosphoric acid in Coca-Cola (KO), or the moisture-retaining salts in salami. (As U.S. states try to control the use of phosphates, which promote algae blooms in water bodies, Procter & Gamble (PG) and other detergent makers have been experimenting with phosphate-free products, with mixed results.)
OCP controls 30 percent of global phosphate exports, and plans to increase annual production from 30 million metric tons to 54 million metric tons by 2015, investing $5 billion in the process. By that time, Prayon, a Belgian phosphate processor in which OCP owns a 50 percent stake, believes demand for phosphate as a component of the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles could exceed demand for it in detergent.