By Catherine Alexander

New Zealand’s reliance on pastoral farming as the backbone of its agricultural economy has a hidden cost in the form of phosphate extraction, a non-renewable resource mined at a high cost to our Pacific neighbours and the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara.

Since colonisation, New Zealand has been a strongly agricultural economy, built on the back of sheep and beef exports reliant on the growth of pasture. All plant life, including grass growth, is dependent on phosphorus, a naturally occurring but non-renewable nutrient. Nearly all the phosphorus farmers use today – and that we consume in the food we eat – is mined from a handful of sources of phosphate rock around the world including the United States, China and Morocco.

Mineral fertilisers such as super phosphate have been a boon for New Zealand agriculture, enabling the industry to overcome the naturally phosphate deficient soils and develop pasture growth into lucrative meat and dairy exports that earned $23 billion in 2020. Phosphorus is so critical to plant growth that without it, New Zealand’s agricultural production would decline by 50% over ten years, resulting in a $10 billion reduction in the economy. Consequently, securing and maintaining a reliable source of phosphate has been a matter of national strategic importance for over 100 years since the colonial government realised in 1900 that soils were becoming deficient, resulting in serious agricultural productivity declines.

New Zealand and Australian farmers enjoyed decades of cheap phosphate due to their imperialism over their Pacific neighbours, namely the islands of Nauru and Banaba (Ocean). Albert Ellis, a New Zealander from the Waikato, first identified phosphate rock on Banaba Island in 1900 and signed a contract with the indigenous Banabans for rights over the island for 999 years. Over the next 80 years 90% of the islands surface was mined for Australia and New Zealand farms. Mining left the island uninhabitable and required the Banaban people to be forcibly moved from their homeland to Rabi island in Fiji.

Despite leaving Banaba over 70 years ago, Banabans still consider it home, yet it is unable to support resettlement of their people. The mining of phosphate from Banaba and Nauru is arguably the most defining part of the enrichment of New Zealand’s economy, the phosphate translating into meat and wool, making New Zealand wealthy at the expense of our Pacific neighbours. When mining ceased in 1979 New Zealand was presented with a challenge to find the next source of phosphate to fuel our economy. With so few sources of phosphate around the world the answer was, and still is, Morocco.

Morocco claims 75% of the world’s phosphate reserves, giving it a near monopoly on a multi-billion annual trade. However, around 2% of that supply comes from contested land that Morocco has forcibly occupied for nearly 50 years. The Western Sahara is Africa’s last remaining matter of decolonisation. It is a piece of desert land about the size of New Zealand and home to the Sahrawi, nomadic tribesmen with a history of resisting colonial rule – first the Spanish and later Moroccan. The withdrawal of Spain from Western Sahara in 1975 should have signalled decolonisation and the beginning of independence. Instead, as part of a Cold War geopolitical move a back-room deal was made and Morocco annexed the area and Sahrawi hopes of self-determination evaporated.

The occupation split Western Sahara, and with successive land grabs, Morocco now controls 80% of the region, including all of the coastal and resource rich areas. The indigenous Sahrawi are left with the barren, arid interior. Morocco has cemented the occupation with a 1,700km sand berm, complete with mines, barbed wire and military patrols. Resistance fighting by the Polisario, the political front of indigenous Sahrawi, against the unlawful occupation resulted in a 16 year guerrilla war which led to the displacement of thousands of Sahrawi to Algerian refugee camps, where over 90,000 still live today in harsh desert conditions and reliant on aid. The UN brokered an end to the conflict in 1991, premised on a referendum on self-determination. However, 30 years later this has still not happened, leaving the final status of the territory unresolved in a ‘frozen conflict’.

Despite the occupation not being recognised internationally, Western Sahara’s rich fishing and phosphate resources continue to be exploited by Morocco. The kingdom asserts that the exploitation is legal because it reinvests the money it receives back into development projects in the region. However, the benefits have largely gone to Moroccan settlers and the authorities, not the indigenous Sahrawi. There have been numerous legal setbacks over Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara, with several EU courts rejecting trade and fishing deals with Morocco that include Western Sahara, on the basis that the Sahrawi people have not given their consent. The occupation has also seen European investors divest in companies buying resources from the area due to the ethical considerations. Consequently, the number of international buyers for the territory’s phosphate exports has declined. Morocco continues its policy of using resource extraction and trade relations to build legitimacy for its rule in Western Sahara. This includes an American brokered trade deal with Israel in the dying days of the Trump administration, which notably included American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This set America apart from the rest of the world and reflects the geopolitical influences of the wider area.

For over 20 years the UN Mission for the Referendum in Sahara (MINURSO) has tried to reach a negotiated solution with Morocco and Polisario that respects UN norms of decolonising non-self-governing territories. This assumes that the solution will be found between integration into Morocco or independent statehood. Morocco has pressed for the region to have self-governing autonomy, but this ignores that Sahrawis would be integrated into an autocratic system that has a history of supressing their nationalism, human rights and political agency. Unsurprisingly, the Polisario has rejected Morocco’s plan.

Against this backdrop of human rights and sovereignty issues, New Zealand continues its trade for phosphate, becoming the last Western democracy to source phosphate from the Western Sahara. The New Zealand farming co-operatives Ballance Agri-nutrients and Ravensdown supply 98% of New Zealand’s super-phosphate fertiliser and source between 70-87% of their phosphorus from Western Sahara. The co-operatives argue that replacing Western Sahara phosphate is difficult because its specific chemical properties are particularly suited to New Zealand soils, being low in cadmium and high in phosphorus. Superphosphate is the main fertiliser applied to agricultural land, with sheep and beef farms the largest users. Hence, the farming co-operatives have made significant investments in fertiliser facilities around New Zealand.

So where does the New Zealand government stand on this contentious matter? The New Zealand government generally takes a position to support the UN and promote self-determination in situations like this, and it has provided full support to MINURSO. Importing phosphate from Western Sahara has attracted widespread criticism globally, and companies in other countries have stopped sourcing resources in the region. Continuing the phosphate trade presents a reputational risk to New Zealand within the world community on this issue. Both Ballance Agri-nutrients and Ravensdown assert they are acting morally and legally sourcing phosphate from Western Sahara, stating that the issue is for the UN to resolve and the OCP mine (Phosboucraa) has developed infrastructure which benefits the local population. However, this position neatly sidesteps the ethical issue of the trade continuing to support a regime via a state-owned company that is unlawfully occupying and exploiting the resources of a region with no recourse to the indigenous people of the land. Unlike the European investment funds the farming co-operative governance model is particularly resistant to social pressure. With Ballance making a $68 million profit in 2020, it is hard to see where the impetus for voluntary change will come from within. The government walks a fine line on this issue, supporting MINURSO whilst merely noting that the farming sector needs to find alternatives to phosphate.

The world’s population is expected to grow by 2 billion over the next 30 years to reach 9.7 billion in 2050. Feeding the world requires phosphate, with 90% of the global demand for phosphorus for food production. Food cannot be produced at today’s global levels without mineral fertilisers. There is increased demand from the Global South to support growing populations and rising demand for agricultural products such as meat and dairy. Unless major changes to agriculture are rapidly developed, demand for phosphorus is only going to increase in the future. Countries with supplies are likely to use them domestically, placing more pressure on areas like Western Sahara and Morocco to meet the world’s needs. As an example, China the world’s largest phosphate exporter, recently restricted exports of phosphate fertiliser until at least June 2022, to meet their domestic demand, reduce emissions and address energy outages. This has pushed an already tight supply market, further increasing the cost of key farm inputs and potentially reducing crop yields.

Continuation of these extractive practices allows humanity to keep living beyond its means, and phosphorus extraction bears the hallmarks of every other fossil fuel bonanza. The big problem is that phosphorus is so integral to the production of food using conventional agricultural methods that its supply is a critical food security matter. The growing biofuels industry competes with agriculture for land and resources, including phosphorus. Resource scarcity typically leads to price increases and resource conservation. In the case of phosphorus, its critical role in food production means that price increases will potentially compound global food supply issues.

In sum, it is clear that the trade of phosphate has geopolitical consequences across the world. There are environmental justice, human rights and sovereignty issues brought about by the exploitation of phosphate rock in the name of global food supply.

So what are the alternatives?

There are potential solutions involving recycling of agricultural, animal and human waste; reducing the non-food phosphorus demand (bio-fuels), decreasing animal product consumption; and increasing the efficiency of phosphorus use and yield gains in crop and livestock systems. All of these factors inter-play with climate change challenges and freshwater scarcity crises.

Relying on price-driven solutions will likely wreak havoc with food supply, increasing food security issues. In 2008 global fertiliser prices spiked around 700%, triggering a global food crisis. Back then the key drivers were on the demand side, notably a sizeable shift to growing bio-fuels in America. Prices for fertiliser and phosphate have again soared in the past year in the face of strong growth in crop growing regions and supply constraints due to covid-19. China’s move to stop exports to address its food security issues will put further pressure on prices. Continued reliance on agricultural production leaves the New Zealand economy exposed to global phosphate supplies and prices. Further investments into agricultural phosphorus use efficiency and the development of renewable fertilisers derived from phosphorus recovered from wastewater and food waste need to be made to support future populations.

The government seems to be leaving this strategic issue solely in the hands of New Zealand’s co-operative fertiliser companies. Compared to the amount of discussion around climate change and peak oil, this is a relatively neglected issue with potentially catastrophic consequences for the New Zealand economy and global food supply. While not diminishing the importance of climate change, it is also time to address this issue again.

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Catherine Alexander is a currently doing a transition certificate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.

This article was prepared as part of a Stage III course on “Governing Planet Earth” directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

See Also:

What is the future of food?

Q+A: What are the politics of food insecurity?