WITH FERTILIZER PRICES SKYROCKETING, SCIENTISTS SCRAMBLE TO RECOVER PHOSPHORUS FROM WASTE
By Roberta Kwok
It started with droughts in Australia and Ukraine. Wheat yields dropped
and countries clamped down on grain exports. With a hungry biofuel
market also gobbling up corn, the cost of food soared.
Sensing an opportunity for profit, farmers sought more fertilizer to nourish their
fields. But high oil prices had increased the cost of processing
phosphate rock, which provides a key ingredient in fertilizer. With
rising demand and tight supply, phosphate rock prices leaped from about
$45 per metric ton to $80, then $135, then $367 — a roughly 700 percent
spike in just one year. As food prices continued to surge, riots erupted
from Haiti to Burkina Faso.
The crisis, which unfolded from 2007
to 2008, foreshadows what might happen more regularly if the world runs
short of phosphate rock, the main source of phosphorus for fertilizer.
Phosphorus, an essential nutrient for life, helps power the growth of
crops. By adding the element to fields, farmers boost their yields and
churn out the billions of tons of food needed to feed Earth’s growing
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