Potash may be a hot commodity garnering plenty of headlines as of lately. But in the quest to feed a burgeoning global population, phosphate may eventually steal the limelight. That's because this lesser-known but equally indispensible key ingredient in fertilizer is expected to run out long before potash ever does.
"While the exact timing may be disputed, it is clear that already the quality of remaining phosphate rock reserves is decreasing. And cheap fertilizers will be a thing of the past," warns Dr. Dana Cordell of the Institute for Sustainable Futures (which is part of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia).
So it's not surprising that BHP Billiton's recent record-setting US $39 billion dollar offer for Potash Corp of Saskatchewan factored-in a valuation of around US $11 billion for the fertilizer giant's phosphate and nitrogen assets. At least that's the assessment of the leading U.S. investment banker, Morgan Stanley.
Investment industry analysts are now all proclaiming that the fertilizer sector is on the cusp of a boom that could last for the foreseeable future, partly due to a looming global shortfall of high-grade phosphate. And that's music to the ears of one small Australian mining company called Legend International (NASD-OTC: LGDI).
Legend's Executive General Manager Craig Michael agrees that there's a "critical need" to ramp-up the worldwide application of phosphate-based fertilizers to provide sufficient food for a surging global population. And a pending supply/demand squeeze promises to translate into higher phosphate prices, he says.
"By 2050 the population is estimated to be over nine billion people and phosphate demand is highly correlated to this growth," Michael adds. "Quality, mineable, accessible phosphate rock deposits are dwindling around the world which is why Legend is aggressively pursuing its quality phosphate development project in Queensland, Australia."
By way of background, all agricultural crops require phosphate, which is an essential element for plant growth. And it cannot be substituted with anything else. Unfortunately, the academics at Sydney's University of Technology believe "peak phosphate" could become a reality as soon as 2030.
They also include Professor Stuart White, who suggests that the price of this indispensible soil nutrient could then skyrocket as supply is consequently eclipsed by demand. In turn, such a shortage could pose a serious threat to global food supplies as much higher prices for crop staples become a stark reality. Ominously, wheat prices have jumped about 40 per cent just in the past few weeks, compared to their average of US$5 per bushel for the year to date. And this has happened in spite of a global bumper harvest last summer.
Professor White's concerns are echoed by Dr. Michael McLaughlin, chief research scientist in the Environmental Biogeochemistry program of CSIRO Land and Water (a nationwide biophysical resources research agency) in Australia. He warns: "Fertilizer is one of the major input costs now for farmers. So, as you increase the price of the raw material, food prices could increase."
Furthermore, none of the issues that caused the global food crisis in 2008 have gone away. Notably, agricultural production is still lagging behind pre-recession levels. Then there's the looming imperative to virtually double crop yields in emerging economies, which have a history of seriously under-utilizing fertilizers due to cost considerations. Additionally, as incomes rise in heavily-populated developing nations like China, there's a corresponding increased demand for animal-based protein, which is heavily reliant on grains as feed for livestock.
Hence, alarm bells are beginning to sound about the world's shrinking phosphate reserves. This problem is compounded by the fact that just four countries - Morocco, China, South Africa and Jordan - control 80 per cent of the world's reserves of usable phosphate rock. This is a particular concern for the US as its own reserves are expected to run out in as little as 15 years.
Australia is also another country that needs to find a way of ramping-up its domestic production as it only generates about half of its annual needs. And its large agricultural industry is especially dependent on fertilizers because this sprawling continent is so arid and increasingly prone to droughts.
This reality is proving to be a call to action for Legend. The company is planning to commercialize its Paradise deposit in the phosphate-rich Mt. Isa region of Queensland by either 2012 or 2013, depending on phosphate prices.
The Paradise project promises to become one of the world's few remaining high-grade phosphate mines. Pre-production trials have already been successfully completed. Also, an initial mine life of at least 30 years has been projected in the company's independently calculated feasibility study (a blueprint for a mine), with a production rate starting at 600,000 tonnes per year.
"However, Legend controls over 1.2 billion tonnes of phosphate rock, which is spread out over a total of seven deposits," Michael says. "This means we could easily produce over one million tonnes per annum for the next 100 years or more."
The fact that Legend's "high quality and high grade" phosphate can easily be upgraded to a rock concentrate that is free of impurities such as iron, aluminium and silica gives the company a key competitive advantage, Michael adds. Especially since the cost of extracting phosphate elsewhere in the world is escalating, mostly due to an overall decline in quality and a related increase in extractions costs.
Accordingly, the company even has an agreement in place to potentially sell some of its future rock output to IFFCO (Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative), India's largest farmers' co-operative, which manufactures and distribute fertilizers across India. It is also the single largest phosphate importer in the world. To underscore its commitment to doing business with Legend, IFFCO has already taken a 15% equity stake in the Australian mining company.
Legend's crucial role in bolstering Australia's high-grade phosphate supplies hasn't gone unnoticed by the global investment industry. For instance, one leading fertilizer analyst - Joel Jackson of the big league North American investment bank, BMO Capital Markets - gave Legend a strong endorsement earlier this year in a research report about the company.
In the report Jackson noted that Legend is poised to capitalize on a business that has a strong growth profile: "Phosphate fertilizer pricing fundamentals have been particularly robust...as supply/demand balances became progressively tighter with the onset of stronger demand."
A growing chorus of research analysts with other major North American investment banks is also loudly hailing the arrival of a secular bull market in fertilizer inputs. They include Patricia Mohr of the Scotia Bank Group. He just published a research report entitled: "Nitrogen & phosphate fertilizer prices are currently on fire, pushed up by the recent surge in U.S. corn prices."
"Corn normally requires heavy fertilizer application," Mohr says in his report. "And stronger world grain and oilseed prices auger well for increased fertilizer application in the spring-2011 planting season."
Certainly, the relentless drumbeat of higher food prices as the global recession recedes and as the world faces the daunting prospect of feeding an additional 75-80 million mouths each year signals a very bright for phosphate prices. And Legend International clearly seems to understand the golden adage of the investment business: "Timing is everything."
Marc Davis is managing editor of www.BNWnews.ca. The principals of www.BNWnews.ca do not directly own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.