Tag Archives: farming

North Africa Turns to Solar while Phosphate Mining Ramps Up


Juan Cole posted in his “Top Ten Reasons Fracking Won’t Last” that Algeria was hoping to become a solar energy powerhouse (sadly, pun intended). The Sahara desert has almost infinite potential for solar energy production because, well, it’s a desert. 364 days a year there is full sunlight, and given the equatorial nature, for days longer than other geographical areas.

This is coming on the heels of growing interest in north African phosphate mining:


Miners have been working in Khouribga for almost a century, but only now is the area poised to become central to the global economy. Back in the 1920s pioneers started tunneling through the earth here, digging through layers of sediment formed under an ancient sea, looking for phosphate-rich rock and occasionally plucking out the tooth of a 30-million-year-old shark. The phosphate extracted from the rock, used in fertilizer, detergent, food additives, and more recently lithium-ion batteries, sold for decades in its raw state for less than $40 per metric ton. Those days are gone. It’s currently trading at about $130.

Phosphates are used in a diverse set of industries, from agriculture to tech. It is the building block of modern food production, meaning that cheap phosphates are key to cheap food for a growing world population.

This is good news for King Mohammed VI, 47, who owns more than half the world’s phosphate reserves. James Prokopanko, chief executive officer of Plymouth (Minn.)-based fertilizer giant Mosaic (MOS), has called Morocco the Saudi Arabia of phosphate,

This sounds great on paper: an African nation, friendly to the West, providing raw materials critical to food production  to the nations of the world.

However, since our job here is to examine indirect costs, it might behoove us to consider the plight of other African nations that are inundated with mineral resources. Nigeria comes to mind as a worst case scenario: the country is a wild west for oil and mineral production, and is currently struggling with popular insurgencies dedicated to liberating areas plagued by the problems with mining. Minerals are a blessing and a curse. Closer to home, United States municipalities are struggling themselves with the very real and present dangers of hydraulic fracturing. I cannot imagine that phosphate mining is any different for ground water.

The question now becomes one of competing industries. On the one hand, we have Algeria and others striking ahead with solar power production, a clean energy alternative to the fossil fuels that Algeria also possesses. This would attract money from Europe and others without being a political and social liability. On the other hand, we have untapped mineral resources in the Atlas mountains that will make it the center of international attention when it comes to agriculture. I cannot imagine that the regime of King Muhammad VI will be any better than the United States when it comes to mining for these phosphates, and the looming specter of Western imperialism for mineral resources should be in the minds of policymakers in Morocco.

This is something to keep your eye on.

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US Drought Will Cause Billions in Damage


One of the industries least affected by the recession was agriculture. This is about to be undermined:

Already, the U.S. Agriculture Department has designated 1,016 counties in 26 states as natural disaster areas — meaning hard-hit farmers in those areas can apply for low-interest emergency loans from USDA. According to Bloomberg, that’s “the biggest such declaration ever.”

Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters adds that the costs associated with this drought “are certain to be many billions of dollars, and the disaster could be one of the top 10 most expensive weather-related disasters in U.S. history.” As he points out, “droughts historically have been some of the costliest U.S. weather disasters.”

It looks like the federal government has acknowledged the damages with the surge of disaster declarations, however this is just the beginning of a steep decline in American agriculture. 

The Ogallala aquifer is a source of water for much of the midwest’s agriculture. This aquifer began to be tapped heavily in and around the 1950s, but has seen incredible declines since that time.

What we’re seeing today is probably a function of climate change. What we see tomorrow will be a combination of climate change and the tapping out of one of the largest underground bodies of water on the planet. The duo will be absolutely devastating to American farmers, yet at the moment, there isn’t much of a push to do anything but business as usual. The stalled 2012 Farm Bill is light on anything resembling a rescue of the aquifer. It will probably take a disaster with regard to the aquifer before the issue is addressed.

One has to wonder if this current crisis will provide an opportunity to reverse our current path toward ultra expensive food. 

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