Iliass El Fali
Managing Director, Corporate Strategy, Sustainability, Innovation, OCP Group
- With the global population expected to hit nearly 10 billion by 2050, demand for food and energy will grow exponentially.
- Agricultural production will need to increase by more than 50% to achieve global food security over the same period.
- Mining can play a key role by providing the raw materials needed to transform agriculture and scale up food production.
A predicted global population of nearly 10 billion by 2050 means global demand for food and energy is expected to grow exponentially. Yet, the planet’s ability to meet this demand is directly threatened by climate change. Accelerating the green transition is therefore imperative not just to combat climate change, but to ensure humanity can feed itself.
In fact, agricultural production will need to increase by an estimated 56% to achieve global food security by 2050. The mining industry will play a key role not only in providing the raw materials needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but in ensuring the transformation of agriculture to scale up food production.
How mining can contribute to agriculture
How does mining contribute to agriculture? Phosphorus, a critical finite resource that promotes the growth of healthy roots, is especially important for young plants and seedlings because it helps with cell division and supports photosynthesis. However, it is not available in all soils and is concentrated in rocks in certain regions of the world.
Mining provides the phosphate rock, which is the primary source of phosphorus needed to produce phosphate fertilizers and provide this nutrient to plants. Phosphate fertilizers are central to modern global agriculture, which, along with nitrogen and potassium, constitute the core of plant nutrition essential for achieving healthy soils.
Indeed, half the food we eat is produced thanks to mineral fertilizers. Agricultural practices must enhance soil and plant nutrition while lowering their environmental footprints. Mining has, therefore, a relevant role to play in the transition to a more sustainable and productive agriculture system.
In addition to supporting food security, the role of agriculture in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is critical – and mining can support it. On the one hand, closing the “yield gap” – the difference between what the farmers could potentially achieve compared to what they actually get – means that more food can be produced with the same amount of land, and fertilizers play a relevant role here.
At the moment, approximately 46% of soils are deficient in phosphorus, with a particularly high deficiency in tropical soils. Addressing this deficiency is, therefore, crucial to increasing yields and ensuring global food security in the years to come.
On the other hand, fertilizers play a key role in reducing emissions by enhancing carbon sequestration and other sustainable practices. For instance, customized fertilizers provide the mineral nutrients designed to meet the specific needs of each soil and the requirements of the plant sown on it. By using the right customized solutions adapted to each specific soil, it is possible to boost soil health, which improves the soil’s natural ability to increase agricultural yields.
This also increases carbon sequestration, reducing the overall environmental footprint by minimizing misapplication. Indeed, the most conservative studies estimate the potential of soil carbon sequestration at 10-20% of annual global CO2 emissions, which could be significantly enhanced through soil health innovation.
Innovation needed to combat climate change
Achieving this within the next decade will require the use of a suite of recent innovations in mining and agricultural technologies, not least as mining is estimated to account for 4-7% of global GHG emissions.
However, miners globally invest a fraction of their revenue in R&D compared with other industrial sectors such as healthcare, information and communications technology (ICT) and transport. In the mining industry, new technologies to extract, recycle, reduce and rehabilitate key production inputs can more sustainably produce the raw materials required to raise food output.
In addition, the use of digital technologies, data analytics, automation and real-time monitoring helps to enhance the flexibility and efficiency of supply chains, enabling companies to respond more effectively to changing market conditions, produce customized fertilizers adapted to soil requirements and ensure a stable supply of phosphate to meet the increasing global demand.
At the same time, sustainable and efficient water practices such as water recycling and monitoring have a positive impact on mining as well as in agriculture.
Last but not the least, reforestation of mining sites also helps sequester carbon from the atmosphere and improve soil health. The mining and metals industry has advanced in its commitment to carbon neutrality on Scope 1 and 2 emissions, but commitment on Scope 3 emissions will be equally essential.
As the green transition advances, miners generally bear a unique responsibility: spending and innovating on new production capacity to meet future demand. But they must do so in ways that preserve resources, and the wider environment, for future generations.
License and Republishing
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.