Mosaic interview: Part 2, ‘significant player in local agriculture’
By CRAIG GARRETT
In the interest of learning both sides to a difficult and sensitive issue, the Arcadian presents an interview with Russell Schweiss, Mosaic Fertilizer’s vice president for Mine Permitting, Land Management and Public Affairs. The Fortune 500 firm seeks to mine phosphate in some 25,000 acres of DeSoto County farmland. It’s rezoning application was denied in July and the company seeks a special magistrate to decide the matter. This is the second of a two-part interview.
Question: PBS’s October documentary on phosphate in Florida was less than complimentary.
Along with neighbors fighting over mining and money’s part, it alleges phosphate’s partial role in red tide, algae blooms, dead wildlife, etc. What’s the reality?
Schweiss: “First, we’re yet to see a single red-tide expert point the finger at phosphate mining as a cause, and that is because there’s tremendous amounts of actual data related to our activities that scientists can review. There are third-party monitoring programs downstream from our mines that have been collecting water quality data for years. And, the data very clearly demonstrate that we do not have a negative impact on water quality, including nutrients.
“Consider this, phosphate mining has been going on in Central Florida for more than 100 years.
And, if you compare the past to the present, it is done with much less intensity and greater environmental protections now. Thirty years ago, 20-plus companies were mining and a dozen manufacturing facilities were operating. Now, there are three manufacturing facilities (which were part of those dozen operating then) and four mines are operating. If the perception is that red tide is a bigger problem now than then, simple logic would say that the aggravating factor is not likely to be the activity that is greatly reduced compared to when there wasn’t a problem.
“Mosaic’s sales to Florida agriculture are less than one percent of our North American total, but we have the knowledge to help and we’re very active in nutrient education here. We share the concerns about algae blooms and the
desire to ensure that fertilizers are properly applied and stay on the farm to grow crops. We strongly support “4R Nutrient Stewardship” to educate those who use any fertilizers about how to use the right source of nutrients, at the right time, in the right place and at the right rate to optimize yields on the farm while protecting the environment by minimizing or eliminating runoff. We have been actively engaged in nutrient stewardship efforts for years, but we recognize there is more to be done.
“Many of Florida’s issues deal less with fertilizer and more with other sources of nutrients, engineered changes to our watersheds which limit natural attenuation and population growth. We are committed to helping identify solutions and ensuring crop nutrients are used responsibly.”
Question: What’s the world phosphate market doing? Do you imagine synthetic phosphate someday replacing minerals?
Schweiss: “Global demand for phosphorus has picked up in recent years. (Global shipments increased 1.5 percent per year from 2010 to 2015, but the pace of growth has increased to about 2 percent per year since 2015.) The traditional drivers— namely population and income growth— remain steady while land committed to agriculture is not expanding at the same rate. That means fertilizer—which accounts for half of all crop yields—is an essential element of meeting future demand.
“Additionally, the globe’s farmers, armed with ever-better input and machinery technology, have produced four consecutive huge crops. Yields are rising around the world — and taking nutrients from the soil with them. This is the nexus of fertilizer demand: The need to replenish nutrients plus the drive for higher yields.
“Regarding a replacement, phosphorus is fundamental to all living things and there is no substitute. Phosphorus is an element … it cannot be created synthetically. Your body cannot substitute something else in your DNA, your bones or to power your cells. There will never be a synthetic replacement because it is a critical basic building block of all living things.
Question: Most common comment, social-media posting, rumor, etc. about what Mosaic is doing that is flat-out wrong and that drives you most bonkers? Can you see the other side’s concerns?
Schweiss: “Social media has created a new dynamic in this country that is only beginning to play out. The notion that there are no uses for the land after it is reclaimed ... this is unfounded; there are very good examples of land utilization post reclamation: recreation, wildlife habitat, wetland mitigation, parks, government infrastructure and various agricultural uses.
“While most people in Central Florida only know Mosaic as a miner and manufacturer, we’re also a significant player in local agriculture. We have about 6,000 acres of citrus, 250 acres of blueberries, 300 acres of sod farm, several hundred acres of commercial eucalyptus (expanding quickly), several thousand acres of commercial pine plantations and 13,000 acres of cattle leases. We also produce about 1.4 million pounds of restaurant grade tilapia every year.
“Our ag business is expanding as well, with new watermelon fields being planted this spring and investments in hoop houses to grow fresh herbs on reclaimed land. Our interest in filling these is tied to the utility of the land after it has been reclaimed.”
Critics argue such scenes define Mosaic’s Florida mining operations. The company, however, counters that it reclaims such property for agriculture, public parks and a golf resort in Bowling Green.