This is a perfect time for an interview with Wouter van der Weijden, environmental biologist and director of the Centre for Agriculture and the Environment in The Netherlands. Wouter has participated in several strategic studies delving into the use of scarce minerals for food production. In this interview, I asked him how the current political situation may cause a shift in geopolitical relations, especially if we look at the geographical origin of the essential minerals for agriculture.

Minerals, when used, are not completely removed from the environment. However, they can become scarce simply because they become diluted or mixed. In order to make them concentrated and pure again, a large amount of money and energy is required. That is fundamentally different with oil and gas. You use it once and then it's over
What are the most basic and necessary raw materials that we need for farming, and where do they come from?
The big three elements are nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. These elements are to agriculture what proteins, fats and carbohydrates are to humans: the macronutrients. Without them, there is no life, and in turn, no agriculture. Phosphate and potassium are minerals, extracted from mines, and nitrogen from the atmosphere.
Let me state first that phosphate and potassium, when used, are not completely removed from the environment. However, they can become scarce simply because they become diluted or mixed. To make them concentrated and pure again, a large amount of money and energy is required. That is fundamentally different with oil and gas. You use it once and then it's over. But you can replace them with sun, wind, hydropower, and nuclear energy. With phosphate and potassium, it’s quite the opposite, they can be recycled but not replaced.

So, is recycling the challenge?
Exactly, next of course, to efficient use with minimal losses. Both are a particular challenge for the EU, because we have only a small percentage of the global reserves of phosphate and potassium in our soils. We must fully focus on efficient use and recycling and work together with other countries. This especially holds for other countries that are import-dependent, such as many African countries, but also, for example, India. Learning to recycle these resources efficiently is important for three reasons: they will eventually become scarce, geopolitics creates increasing supply risks, and for the protection of the environment.

What are we doing about that now?
In the Netherlands, we already recover quite a bit of phosphate from sewage water, in Amsterdam and Amersfoort. This rarely makes the news, but the Netherlands, together with Sweden, is one of the forerunners in this process. However, we still do virtually nothing to recover potassium from sewage water. Potassium is more difficult to recycle because it dissolves easily in water. Nitrogen, too, can in principle be recovered from sewage water using specific bacteria.

How do you define 'raw materials’?
Minerals, including minerals essential to crops, that are present in the earth's crust at a level and in certain concentrations, can be extracted profitably. The latter is important, because, for example, the supply of potassium that is found deeper in the earth's crust is enormous, but the deeper you must dig, the higher the financial and energy costs. In that case, you’re not talking about absolute scarcity, but about the financial and energy costs of mining, not to mention the environmental costs.
Nitrogen is a different story. It is omnipresent in virtually unlimited quantities in the atmosphere. However, it must first be fixed and converted into a nutrient that can be used by the crop, either synthetically or biologically. Both processes cost a lot of energy, fossil and biological, respectively. In the latter case it will reduce the yield of the crop.

The well-known Farm-to-Fork Strategy of the European Commission, which claimed to focus on the long term, had a major blind spot: geopolitics. It did not even mention it
How is that geopolitical?
Nitrogen itself is split evenly across the global atmosphere, but the world's energy reserves, required to convert that nitrogen, are not.
The largest reserves of oil are in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, while Saudi Arabia and Russia are currently the largest exporters. The US administration is currently in talks with President Maduro to ease some sanctions so that the country can return to supplying some crude oil to the US. The US needs it because it has shut down its oil imports from Russia and urges the EU to follow suit.
In terms of gas, Russia is the world's number one with 24% of reserves. The EU cannot afford to stop gas imports overnight but - apart from Hungary - seeks to reduce it as soon as possible, helped by extra supplies from the US, Algeria and Qatar.
By the way, the well-known Farm-to-Fork Strategy of the European Commission, which claimed to focus on the long term, had a major blind spot: geopolitics. It did not even mention it.

What can Norway and other exporters offer compared to Russia?
As a gas exporter, Norway is important, but its reserves only make up 1% of the global reserves. And for oil, it’s even less: 0,3%.
Next to Russia, the largest gas reserves have been found in Iran and Qatar. But as long as US sanctions against Iran continue, we cannot import gas and oil from Iran. Qatar says it is currently tied to gas contracts with Asian countries. Due to these factors, we have limited leeway.

Moving on to potassium
The top three in potassium reserves are Canada with 30%, Belarus with 20% and Russia with 16%. It is a fair assumption that Putin will not let Belarus escape. Suppose it forms a cartel with Canada, then together they are the dominant player and Russia has lost influence on the price and it also becomes much more difficult to use potassium as political leverage. Other countries have significantly smaller potassium reserves: China 9%, the US 6% and Germany 4%. Just to be clear, the numbers I mention are from the US Geological Survey. They can change each time new recoverable reserves are found. For the short term, we have to look at production and export figures, but for the long term, the reserves are of much greater geostrategic importance.

And phosphate?
This is an extreme case, with the lion's share of the world's stock in just one country: Morocco. That's 70%, if you include Western Sahara, which was annexed in 1975. That is a built-in source of conflict, because Polisario is still active, a movement that has been fighting for independence for 47 years. Morocco has built a huge sand wall right through the country. Behind that wall, Polisario is allowed to survive. It is a frozen conflict, similar to Transnistria and Abkhazia in Europe. Conflicts that can be stirred up again any time it suits a big player. That’s what we recently saw around the Donbas and Crimea.
In 2020, Trump sought to please Israel and the evangelicals in the US. He recognized the annexation by Morocco, on the condition that they establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel. So, they did. However, I would be surprised if the US didn’t also negotiate guarantees for access to Moroccan phosphate.

What does the large amount of phosphate in Morocco mean for other countries?
China can go ahead for some time with 5% of global reserves, but Russia and the US will be just as dry as India and the EU in the foreseeable future. Louise Fresco wrote somewhere that the Green Revolution in India was largely based on Moroccan phosphate. I think she's right about that.

Morocco becomes a superpower in terms of phosphate
Isn’t the Indian Prime Minister Modi a supporter of Putin?
Yes, but he welcomed Trump as well. He remains neutral and plays Russia and the US off against each other, out of well-understood self-interest.

And Morocco?
Morocco is becoming a superpower in terms of phosphate. To put it in perspective: Morocco's share of global phosphate reserves is significantly greater than the share of oil reserves held by all of the Gulf States and Russia combined. As I said before, there are alternatives for oil but not for phosphate.

Have we not been aware of the power that Morocco has, just like the power that Russia built?
I haven't seen much of that yet, although Morocco plays hard ball. For example, last year, the leader of Polisario was ill and was treated in Spain. What did Morocco do? The country opened the gates and migrants poured into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. The trick worked within a year, as Spain recognized Morocco's control over Western Sahara. Algeria, which supports Polisario, is furious and has recalled its ambassador from Madrid. By the way, other neighboring countries of the EU also have a trump card with allowing immigrants from the Middle East and Africa to cross the border if tensions rise. Belarus tried it at the Polish border last year and Russia may try it elsewhere, including Finland.

How should we deal with that?
Morocco is – admittedly flawed, but still, a democracy. We should cherish them and maintain the good relationship, but also criticize them if necessary. We have to think very carefully about whether we want to recognize the annexation, and if so, under what conditions. There are arguments for and against. The United Nations have still not recognized the annexation.
There has already been a problem with the Netherlands, hardly noticed by the media. It was regarding social assistance benefits to Moroccan immigrants who had moved back to their homeland. The Netherlands then made a distinction between Moroccans living in Morocco and those living in Western Sahara. That really upset the king of Morocco. He threatened reprisals. The Netherlands then sent Mayor Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, born in Morocco, and he rectified it. In May 2022, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs said he welcomed Morocco’s plan to grant the Western Sahara limited autonomy.
However, we also know that even if we remain friends with Morocco, more and more countries, including superpowers, will soon be competing for Rabat’s favors. Morocco, with its frozen conflict, can then become a seat of fire. Great powers could even come and get the phosphate by force if they choose to. The Chinese navy has already practiced with the Russian fleet in the Baltic and Mediterranean. One day they could also deploy their navies to secure the supply of phosphate.

The rivalry will no doubt increase but does not necessarily lead to wars. It can also develop into fair competitionb]Morocco shouldn’t become arrogant?
Right, but not too modest either. They better resist pressure into offering preferential treatment or lower prices.

How will the battle for resources develop?
There has already been rivalry for centuries, even wars, such as the wars on guano and chili saltpeter in the 19th Century. The rivalry will no doubt increase but not necessarily lead to wars. It can also develop into fair competition. However, competition can lead to a rat race to the bottom with reserves being depleted quickly. A hard landing will then follow, after which everyone is screwed. I strongly advocate a soft landing, in which you already anticipate the scarcity of the future, thereby gaining time for a stepwise transition. That requires cooperation, at least with those countries on which we depend, but also with countries that have a similar dependency as we do, such as India and sub-Saharan countries. They also may benefit greatly from recycling.

Is rational thinking about common interests conceivable? This time shows a very different dynamic
Yes, there is more rivalry and hardening, but I also see growing consensus, especially on climate policy based on the idea that we all have an interest in tackling the problem and avoiding a catastrophe. Similarly, I hope people and leaders realize that it is in everyone's interest that raw materials are used more wisely and that they remain available and affordable for everyone for as long as possible. Recycling is one of those solutions that has already started locally. We have to look at which countries have parallel, and which ones have opposite interests. Morocco obviously has no interest in recycling, but most other countries do.

China and Russia have access to many minerals and Russia also has a lot of energy. China can import energy, fertilizer, and food from Russia, whereas Russia needs income, so they have a mutual interest.

India doesn't have many minerals. How does it deal with China, and with Russia? How is the rest of the world dealing with India?
India will - I would think - first wish to secure its food supply. For that they also have to look at their nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus supply. They have little energy reserves, so nitrogen can pinch. In terms of phosphate, they have been able to get by with Morocco for decades, and they will probably continue to buy potassium from Belarus and Russia, because there is a mutual interest in those relationships as well.
China and India are rivals, but on occasion also join forces. For example, they once formed a purchasing cartel to force a lower price for potassium from Belarus.

Arab states use their oil money to buy technology to make food in the desert. How will that develop?
They produce some beautiful technological innovations, but I’m afraid they are so capital-intensive that most countries would shy away from them. These technologies also don't seem to be quite sustainable. Perhaps they can also help to become a little less dependent on food imports. However, the Gulf states do not expect to produce much food, as they also invest in African agriculture.

How do they operate there?
With few scruples. Look at Sudan. With the support of the Gulf States, the popular uprising has been brutally crushed there.

Israel is very present in Africa. There is Israeli high tech, partly financed with Chinese money.
Israel is almost everywhere. Prime Minister Bennet spent three hours talking with Putin early in the war. Israel operates very strategically. They have good relations in Africa and more recently even with some Arab countries. There are numerous goods and services they have to offer. Firstly, high-level technology, including technology for agriculture in arid regions. Secondly, they also offer weapons and espionage software.

But why those three hours with Putin?
I suspect that was also about the nuclear deal with Iran. They both have an interest in blocking restoration of that deal for the time being. Israel wants to keep Iran short, and Putin wants to keep oil and gas prices high, because he has been earning extra billions every day since the beginning of the war. A deal with Iran would immediately lower oil prices, which is not in Russia’s interest.

And Europe? We have little energy and little potassium and phosphorus. Should we be friends with others?
We must first remain friends with Canada. Hopefully one day we can become friends with Belarus and Russia again. Morocco is already associated with the EU. That is a mutual interest that we must cherish. Let's not be naïve, Morocco can shift its friendships to partners who offer them more and don’t ask questions about human rights.
As for energy, we have to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible.

And South America?
They have enough land there, but not a lot of raw materials. Potassium is now difficult for them to buy in Belarus and Russia as long as the US blocks payments. Brazil’s President Bolsonaro sees this as a wonderful opportunity to move further into the Amazon, including areas of indigenous peoples where there is potassium in the soil. As for phosphate, Brazil is largely dependent on Morocco. For nitrogen, they have three large Yara factories, but not much energy: only 1% of the world's oil reserves, and little gas.

All it takes is something small to happen and the system may crash
How is the world dealing with South America and Africa? Will we be friends?
I hope that everyone not only looks at their own interests, but at common interests, and then sees whether you can work together. Who are the troublemakers? Can you make a deal with them? It is best to outline a rational path. It only looks bleak for those countries that have nothing to offer, but that was already the case. Hopefully they can count on some solidarity.

The question is whether we will collectively ask ourselves these questions. We now suddenly see how interwoven the web has become. All it takes is something small to happen and the system may crash. Take sunflower oil. All over the world, recipes have to be adjusted because the oil has run out.
The scarcity of cooking oil is a problem for Turkey and many other countries. But do we in Europe die if the cookies become somewhat more expensive or taste less fine? There are always domino and waterbed effects. You can partly draw these out in advance, but there are always surprises. Still, the Paris climate path does give me some hope. That path wasn’t easy. Unfortunately, China and India still refused to say goodbye to coal in Glasgow, even in the long term. That is apparently a line that we cannot yet cross collectively. However, coalitions of the willing have been formed on various sub-topics. In this way, we must also anticipate the future scarcity of raw materials.

The raw materials for windmills, solar panels and electric cars are scarce and not all recyclable. We will therefore also have to reduce consumption, at least with energy-intensive goods and services
Are you saying that it is precisely because cartels arise that we can have a good discussion?
To some extent, yes. I already said after the second oil crisis in 1979, OPEC-like constructions could contribute to sustainability. What will become scarce in the future should become expensive today. Everyone can then get used to it, energy and raw materials will be used more efficiently, and raw materials can be recycled sooner and more efficiently. The interest of the cartels themselves is that by producing less, they earn more in the short term and can continue with their raw materials for longer. In the EU, we must continue to impose levies on raw materials so that they become extra expensive here, while remaining affordable for developing countries. We can also use those levies to stabilize prices.

If we make fossil fuels very expensive, 'sustainable' solutions will become economically viable more quickly. But don't we produce those sustainable solutions with fossil energy?
Unfortunately, yes, but you should see it as an investment in lower energy consumption. A relatively short-term energy return on investment (EROI) is key. There are limits, because over time the North Sea will be filled with wind turbines, there will be solar panels on all roofs, and we don't want more solar fields. Moreover, the raw materials for windmills, solar panels and electric cars are also becoming scarce, vulnerable to geopolitics, and not all of them are recyclable. We will therefore also have to reduce consumption, at least of our energy-intensive goods and services. We have already started with less meat, let's now, for example, ban bitcoins. The world in which everything stays the same except the introduction of infinite recycling of everything does not exist.

Higher prices will give both technology and agroecology a boost, in both fields there is still a lot to gain. First with phosphate, then with potassium and micronutrients. There may also be gains with nitrogen fixation by crops and bacteria, although the problem remains that we achieve lower yields with them and therefore will need more land.