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From the Publisher

PublisherFrom the Publisher

 (NOTE: The following is an excerpt from an important article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the March 6, 2023 issue of THE NEW YORKER, pg. 25.) 

“The longest conveyor belt on earth begins in the town of Bou Craa and runs for sixty miles across Western Sahara to the port city of El Marsa. The region is so flat and so desolate that the conveyor stands out, even from space. According to NASA, the belt ‘has often attracted astronaut attention in this otherwise almost featureless landscape.’

“The conveyor carries phosphorus-rich rock, which is mined in Bou Craa and then shipped from the coast to places like India and New Zealand to be processed into fertilizer. The mine, and indeed the vast majority of the rest of Western Sahara, is controlled — illegally, by most accounts — by Morocco, which possesses something like seventy percent of the planet’s known phosphorus reserves.

“The status of Western Sahara is one of the worries that Dan Egan takes on in his worrying new book, The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance (Norton). Egan is a journalist who for many years reported on the Great Lakes, for the Milwaukee JOURNAL SENTINEL; it is the condition of Lake Erie that, in a roundabout, everything-in-the-modern-world-way, seems to have led him to learn about Bou Craa. Egan quotes Jeremy Grantham, the British investor, who has said that Morocco’s hold over the planet’s phosphorus ‘makes OPEC and Saudi Arabia look like absolute pikers.’ He also quotes Isaac Asimov, who once wrote, ‘Life can multiply until all the phosphorus is gone and then there is an inexorable halt which nothing can prevent.’  

“As Egan notes, phosphorus is critical not just to crop yields but also to basic biology. DNA is held together by what’s often called a ‘phosphate backbone’; without this backbone, the double helix would be a hash. The compound ATP provides cells with energy for everything from ion transport to protein synthesis; the ‘P’ in the abbreviation stands for ‘phosphate.’ In vertebrates, bones are mostly made up of calcium phosphate, as is tooth enamel.

“What distinguishes phosphorus from other elements that are essential to life — carbon, say, or nitrogen — is its relative scarcity. (Asimov described phosphorus as ‘life’s bottleneck.’) The atmosphere contains almost no phosphorus. Phosphate-rich rocks, meanwhile, exist only in limited quantities, in certain geological formations. China holds the world’s second-largest reserves — these are less than one-tenth the size of Morocco’s — and Algeria the third-largest.

“Since the early nineteen-sixties and the start of the Green Revolution, global consumption of phosphorus fertilizers has more than quadrupled. How long the world’s reserves will last, given this trend, is a matter of debate. As the planet’s population continues to climb — it recently reached eight billion and is expected to hit nine billion in fifteen years — more and more people will need to be fed. At the same time, as the best-grade ores get mined out, more and more rock will presumably have to be processed just to hold fertilizer production steady. Some researchers say that ‘peak phosphorus,’ the point at which the amount of phosphorus being pulled from the ground starts to decline, could be reached within the next decade. Others maintain that the time frame is more like centuries.

“Egan doesn’t think that the world will run out of phosphorus anytime soon, but he does argue that the U.S. is ‘particularly vulnerable.’ America is rapidly churning through its domestic reserves, which aren’t all that large to begin with. (Much of the country’s phosphorus is found in central Florida, a region where mining has to compete with condo development.) When these reserves are gone, potentially within the next thirty years, the U.S. will become dependent on other countries — notably, Morocco — to feed itself.

“This, it seems, would suit Morocco just fine. The country seized large swaths of Western Sahara in 1975, after Spain, which had ruled the region for almost a century, relinquished control. The invasion, Egan writes, was primarily ‘a business move.’ Morocco has its own huge phosphorus operations, and it didn’t want the Bou Craa mine competing with them. Tens of thousands of the territory’s residents fled; most of them settled in Algeria, where their children and their children’s children still live in refugee camps. In November, 2020, the Polisario Front, a group fighting for independence for Western Sahara, declared that it was ending a ceasefire that had been brokered by the United Nations. A month later, Donald Trump, in one of his last acts as President, announced that the U.S. would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the region. The decision was criticized as a violation of international law, and many U.S. officials urged Joe Biden to reverse it. So far, though, he hasn’t.”    

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