The battle for the fertiliser giant points to a near future in which world food supplies may need to rise by 70%
Richard Wachman, The Observer,
But behind the rhetoric is a bidding war that lays bare the global struggle for resources on a planet struggling with water and food shortages, overpopulation and pollution. And it highlights a question that overshadows the 21st century: how to provide enough food for a global population that is set to rise from 6.8 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations.
Potash Corporation, based in Saskatchewan, is the biggest producer of potash, a key component of fertilisers used to maximise the supply of healthy crops. The company also makes nitrogen and phosphate, two other primary constituents of fertiliser products.
With demand for grain rising and less farmland available per person, "the need for fertiliser – especially potash – has never been greater," says the Potash Corp website.
According to Potash Corp, more people are eating meat, and as incomes rise in developing nations, millions of people are switching from starch to protein-based diets. "Every pound of beef requires seven pounds of grain to produce, and this has a substantial impact on demand," says a Potash official.
Analysts agree the use of fertiliser is bound to rise in the attempt to feed the world's growing population. A report from HSBC flagged up its growing importance as extreme weather events increasingly disrupt production. This year's failure of the Russian wheat harvest, as well as the flooding in Pakistan, are cases in point.
Experts say crop yields are low in many regions, partly due to the historical under-application of fertiliser in many developing countries. China has 20% of the world's population but just 6% of its arable land – which has dwindled as Chinese industry has ruined previously fertile tracts of ground through pollution and heavy industrialisation. The Fertiliser Institute in Washington says China and India use only half as much potash on their fields as American farmers.
A recent paper published by the Royal Society says there are limits on the amount of land that will become available for crops even though it estimates that global food supplies need to increase by 70% in the next 40 years. But better fertilisers and chemicals could hugely increase yields and cut water use.
Before its bid for Potash Corp, BHP had been spending millions in Canada buying up potash deposits and acquiring small producers such as Athabasca for C$340m (£210m). But developing a potash business from scratch is viewed as more expensive than buying a business that already accounts for nearly a quarter of global production.
"In one fell swoop, BHP could become one of the most important players in the industry," says Kernot. "High entry costs favour major acquisitions over digging new mines. It can take seven or eight years to build a new site."
But Kloppers will almost certainly have to return with a higher price to woo Potash Corp's investors. The Canadian firm issued a statement last week claiming: "BHP Billiton intentionally launched its proposal just as the fertiliser industry emerges from an unprecedented demand decline associated with the global slowdown in order to seize the value that Potash Corp is poised to create for its shareholders."
The market for potash plummeted in 2009 as farmers put projects on hold. But the signs are that demand is rebounding after sales fell by a half to 30m tonnes a year ago: Potash Corp's profits in the first half nearly tripled. In 2008, the price of potash was hovering close to $1,000 a tonne, way above the current price of $374. But analysts believe that the cycle is about to change.
The bidding war for Terra, which produces nitrogen-based fertilisers, came at about the same time as Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov acquired stakes in Uralkali and Silvinit as part of an attempt to combine the two to create the world's second-largest potash producer – and to establish a Russian champion.
What is happening in the fertiliser sector mirrors the scramble for natural resources throughout the world, as governments and corporations jockey for position to satisfy rising consumption.
For companies, there is the lure of huge profits via consolidation. In the last week alone, there have been two big moves by resources firms. First, Agrium launched a A$1bn offer for AWB, the Australian wheat trader. Then India's ambitious minerals group Vedanta Resources announced plans to buy a controlling stake in Cairn Energy's Indian oil fields. It is the Indian company's first major investment in oil and marks a milestone in its development as a diversified commodities producer.
In Africa, the Chinese are forging mining joint ventures and investments linked to China's hunt for resources to fuel its fast-industrialising economy. Africa is also seeing a land grab that has been likened to Europe's carve-up of the continent at the end of the 19th century. An Observer investigation earlier this year established that 50m hectares – more than double the size of the UK – had been acquired in the last few years by foreign governments and wealthy investors with state subsidies.
Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural schemes since 2007. Saudi Arabia is thought to be the biggest buyer as it turns to Africa to meet domestic demand, a move that helps it to conserve water at home.
Some of the African deals have been eye-wateringly large: China has signed a contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow 2.8m hectares of palm oil for biofuels. Before it fell apart after riots, a proposed 1.2m-hectare deal between Madagascar and South Korea's Daewoo would have included nearly half the country's arable land.
It is against this backdrop that BHP's move on Potash Corp should be viewed. Its foray is not without risks, as new technology and GM crops could also play an important role in helping to secure larger and more reliable food supplies. But that is a distant hope at the moment.
BHP has been eyeing Potash Corp for around a year, insiders say. Kloppers knows he will be under pressure if he fails, after his company was forced to withdraw a bid for rival Rio Tinto in late 2008 as the credit crunch worsened.
Potash Corp is bound to seek a white knight in its efforts to extract a higher price, with Chinese competitors and Vale of Brazil possible counter-bidders. But BHP, the world's largest mining multinational, has more than £7bn of cash and will be hard to dislodge.
The stakes could scarcely be higher.