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Western Sahara, a sparsely populated slice of desert on Africa’s northwestern coast, doesn’t get much ink as a potential crisis point in the global food system. You’ve probably never heard of the long-standing independence movement in the Morocco-controlled territory—or that the area harbors vast stores of an element critical to contemporary agriculture.
Morocco, it is thought, holds up to 85 percent (PDF) of the globe’s known phosphate rock reserve—and a lot of it lies in Western Sahara. Morocco’s royal family thus controls what Jeremy Grantham, cofounder of the prominent Boston-based global investment firm Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co., called the “most important quasi-monopoly in economic history.”
Who cares about phosphorus? For starters, every living thing on Earth—including humans—since all the crops we eat depend on it to produce healthy cells. Until the mid-20th century, farmers maintained phosphorus levels in soil by composting plant waste or spreading phosphorus-rich manure. Then new mining and refining techniques gave rise to the modern phosphorus fertilizer industry—and farmers, particularly in the rich temperate zones of Europe and North America, quickly became hooked on quick, cheap, and easy phosphorus. Now the rest of the world is scrambling to catch up, and annual phosphorus demand is rising nearly twice as fast as the population.