Episode 820: P Is For Phosphorus : Planet Money Phosphate is a crucial element, for farming, and for life. And there aren't too many places to get it. What if it runs out?
NPR logo Episode 820: P Is For Phosphorus

Episode 820: P Is For Phosphorus

Untreated phosphate being dropped off on a mountain at the end of a conveyor belt at the Marca factory of the National Moroccan phosphates company. Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Untreated phosphate being dropped off on a mountain at the end of a conveyor belt at the Marca factory of the National Moroccan phosphates company.

Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Phosphorus is in pretty much everything: bombs, toothpaste, cheese. It's irreplaceable. Nothing can live without it and it's only economically recoverable in a few places. Like Morocco, and China.

Most of our phosphorus—or phosphate, which is its usable form—goes into fertilizer. The farmers pile it on, and then the bulk of it just washes right off into the rivers and then ocean. It's really hard to get phosphorus out of the ocean, which means, as far as we're concerned, that phosphorus is pretty much gone once it's in the water.

Today on the show, we scour the earth for one of the building blocks of the modern world, and life itself. We'll find about the world's biggest mine, a place almost no outsiders have been. (The 60-mile-long conveyor belt we mention in this episode is on this google map in satellite view. It's marked 'bande transporteuse.')

Then we'll head to a little town in Vermont, where we'll meet a group of resourceful citizens who have other ideas about where we might find this essential element.

Music: "Low Slung" "Drunken Hawaiian," "Slide by Slide"

Find us: Twitter/ Facebook / Instagram

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, PocketCasts and NPR One.