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This triggered an international panic – China placed a 100 per cent tariff on its phosphorus exports, and rocketing fertiliser prices triggered demonstrations and a fatal stampede in India.
The price of phosphate has returned to 'only' around 3 times the 2005 level, but the spike signals how unpredictable the price of phosphorus inputs will be. It's clear that phosphate rock is politically sensitive, radioactive, overused and, most worryingly, becoming scarce.
Nathan Nelson, an authority on nutrients in organic systems at Kansas State University, is familiar with the problem.
In the last 100 years, world agriculture has developed an increasing dependence on mineral phosphate fertilisers – a suite of compounds produced exclusively from phosphate rock.
In 2007, physicist Patrick Déry applied to phosphate rock the same statistical method that has been used consistently to predict when oilfields will peak.
He found that phosphate production has already peaked.
Human waste In contrast with crude phosphate, another, more sustainable source of phosphorus is highly regulated – human waste.
One analysis shows about one sixth of the phosphorus that is mined each year ends up in our toilets, mainly as urine, and presently only 10 per cent of that is returned to our fields.