Phosphate, along with nitrogen, is one of the two most necessary components of synthetic fertilizer. But unlike nitrogen, which makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere, phosphate is a finite resource. And there’s no way to manufacture it.
Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco, just north along the coast, since 1975. If you include this disputed region, Morocco holds more than 72 percent of all phosphate-rock reserves in the world, according to the most recent United States Geological Survey study. The next closest country, China, has just shy of 6 percent. The rest is spread out in smaller pockets around the globe. Morocco aggressively and sometimes violently argues that the notion of Western Sahara statehood is illegitimate, and that the region’s rich supply of phosphate is theirs. As a result, Western Sahara has been the stage for a growing human-rights conflict as well as significant regional geopolitical tensions.
Currently, the price of phosphate is not high enough for there to be an economic need for governments and private companies to rely on Western Sahara’s sources, says Weber; there are sufficient domestic or other international reserves.