By Mohamed Belkhayat
By Mohamed Belkhayat
Washington DC – Morocco is remembered for succulent safran tagines, vegetables and lamb couscous, ginger and garlic dishes, cinnamon and sugar topped Bastilla, roasted green pepper and tomato salad with garlic and olive oil, Smen spiked Harira soup, and the daily national drink, sweet mint tea! These are the hallmarks of Moroccan hospitality and Moroccan cuisine. They are delicious, healthy, and well known to any tourist worth his or her salt around the world.
But how many know about the other spice that comes from Morocco? The one without which life itself could not exist? The one that allowed a global agricultural revolution around the world called the green revolution? From the world-leading Brazilian Ethanol production to India’s food supply this spice is key. It is sometimes referred to as white gold and it is phosphorus based. Yes! Phosphate is that spice, and Morocco has lots of it. The phosphate deposits in Morocco account for 75% of the world reserves, and Morocco has been generously exporting and sharing this critical resource with the entire world for over a century!
Phosphorus is so critical that in 1974, one of the most famous science writers, Issac Asimov, stated that “Life can multiply until all the phosphorus has gone and then there is an inexorable halt which nothing can prevent. We may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal, and plastics for wood, and yeast for meat, and friendliness for isolation—but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement.” Phosphorus is much less abundant in the solar system than the usual elements that make up the cell, such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Phosphorus actually comes at number 17 in order of abundance.
Believe it or not Phosphorus was discovered in human urine while a 17th century alchemist was on the hunt for gold. In 1669, German alchemist Hennig Brand distilled 290 Gallons of real human urine in order to find the fabled philosopher’s stone. What he got instead was a material that glowed in the dark, and so It was named phosphorus mirabilis “miraculous bearer of light.“
Every human, animal, and plant DNA molecule needs phosphorus to attach its ladder rungs together. The amount of phosphorus in the body is less than 1% by weight but very critical to the whole make up and function of the human body. How is that for a spice! This magical element also controls the energy flow throughout the body via another magical molecule called ATP. ATP, or Adenosine Tri-Phosphate for those who are scientifically inclined, is the energy currency for every living cell. So I tell my American family jokingly, watch it! if Morocco is stingy with the spice of life, all of our cells will feel it. According to Trefil, a recognized biologist, “hooking and unhooking that last phosphate [on ATP] is what keeps the whole world operating.”
In the field of computer chips, phosphorus is also a very important ingredient. It is used as a doping agent for silicon based chips so that transistors, which are the building blocks for all computers and electronics, can work as they are designed to. Phosphorene, or black phosphorus, is an exciting new material based on phosphorus that is being investigated for new energy efficient transistors with superior performance and also as better light detectors.
Unfortunately, these molecules of life have derivatives such as white phosphorus that have been used against life itself! In Vietnam, and also in Palestine, white phosphorus was used with deadly consequences. As an incendiary weapon, it can melt the skin and cannot be extinguished by water. Therefore, control and careful use of this substance is extremely important.
Phosphorus was deemed such an important resource for the US, that President Roosevelt banned its export! “The disposition of our phosphate deposits should be regarded as a national concern,” he said. “The situation appears to offer an opportunity for this nation to exercise foresight in the use of a great national resource heretofore almost unknown in our plans for the development of the nation.” In comparison, Morocco has never contemplated such measures, and to the author’s knowledge, Morocco has been very generous with exporting and sharing this very critical resource with the entire world! Under the helm of Dr. Mostapha Terrab, an MIT graduate, and the MIT Sloan foundation for expert advice, the Moroccan Phosphate mining company OCP is being modernized and expanded to be more efficient and more productive.
More recently, Morocco has announced additional regional investments and larger projects dealing with Phosphate mining. This is all the better for the world populations benefiting from this very important spice! In keeping with its historical hospitality, the more Morocco can share this spice the better. At the same time, Morocco needs to look at recycling this important resource, as phosphorus recycling is becoming more and more important.
So here is to the sweet Tagines of Morocco and the magical spice that is behind them! My prayer is that it keeps flowing not only to the rich nations but also the poor ones, and that this spice of life remains as such.
Footnote: The reader may be wondering where the author stands on the southern Sahara. The author is not affiliated with any political parties, regimes, nor lobbying firms; the author is a Moroccan American scientist who is curious about this molecule of life, the phosphate. The author respects human rights and human dignity. The author is cognizant of the centuries old allegiances of the southern provinces to Morocco dating back to when Marrakesh was the capital of Morocco. The author is keenly aware of the events of the green march and the UN resolutions. It is the author’s opinion that all the Saharawi people should be welcomed with open arms in their homes in the Sahara under a respectful and dignified regionalization program.
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