Franklin D. Roosevelt

Message to Congress on Phosphates for Soil Fertility.

May 20, 1938

To the Congress:The soil of the United States faces a continuing loss of its productive capacity.

That is a challenging statement. It would seem, therefore, to be the part of wisdom for the Government and the people of the United States to adopt every possible method to stop this loss and begin to rebuild soil fertility.

We give the name of "soil conservation" to the problem as a whole; and we are already active in our efforts to retard and prevent soil erosion, and by the more intelligent use of land to build up its crop, its pasturage and its tree producing capacity.

As a result of the studies and tests of modern science it has come to be recognized that phosphorus is a necessary element in human, in animal and in plant nutrition. The phosphorus content of our land, following generations of cultivation, has greatly diminished. It needs replenishing. The necessity for wider use of phosphates and the conservation of our supplies of phosphates for future generations is, therefore, a matter of great public concern. We cannot place our agriculture upon a permanent basis unless we give it heed.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of phosphorus not only to agriculture and soil conservation but also to the physical health and economic security of the people of the Nation. Many of our soil types are deficient in phosphorus, thus causing low yields and poor quality of crops and pastures.

Indeed, much of the present accelerated soil erosion in the United States has taken place, and is still taking place, on land that has either been abandoned or is ready to be abandoned because of a low productivity brought about by failure to maintain the fertilizing elements in the soil. In many cases the reclaiming of eroded land is largely a matter of stimulating plant growth, such as legumes and grasses; but hand in hand with this we must also replenish the actual phosphorus content of the soil.

Recent estimates indicate that the removal of phosphorus from the soils of the United States by harvested crops, grazing, erosion, and leaching, greatly exceeds the addition of phosphorus to the soil through the means of fertilizers, animal manures and bedding, rainfall, irrigation and seeds.

It appears that even with a complete control of erosion, which obviously is impossible, a high level of productivity will not be maintained unless phosphorus is returned to the soil at a greater rate than is being done at present. Increases by the addition of phosphorus to the soil must be made largely, if not entirely, in the form of fertilizers which are derived principally from phosphate rock.

Therefore, the question of continuous and adequate supplies of phosphate rock directly concerns the national welfare.

The total known world supply of phosphate rock is estimated at 17.2 billion tons, of which 7.2 billion tons is located in the United States. Nearly all the remainder is controlled by Great Britain, France and Russia. The supply in the United States is distributed as follows: Florida 7.4 per cent, Tennessee 1.4 per cent, Western States (Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming) 90.8 per cent, and other States (Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Virginia) 0.4 per cent. The domestic production of phosphate rock amounted to 3,351,857 tons in 1936, drawn from Florida (78.3 per cent), Tennessee (19.2 per cent), and Idaho and Montana (2.5 per cent). Exports of phosphate rock amounted to 2,208,951 tons, almost entirely from Florida, and consumption of phosphate rock for non-agricultural purposes totaled 352,275 tons.

Thus, it appears that of the total domestic production of phosphate rock only 53 per cent was used for domestic agricultural purposes.

Owing to their location in relation to the principal fertilizer consuming districts, the Florida and Tennessee deposits, which contain less than 10 per cent of the nation's supply, are furnishing more than 97 per cent of all the phosphate rock used for domestic agricultural purposes. Under present conditions, by far the greater portion of our phosphate requirements will continue to be drawn from the Florida and Tennessee deposits so long as these deposits last. When it is realized that the consumption of phosphatic fertilizer must be increased considerably if our soils are to be maintained reasonably near their present levels of fertility, which in many cases are far below the levels necessary for an efficient agriculture, it becomes apparent that the deposits of Florida and Tennessee will last but a comparatively short period.

It is hardly necessary to emphasize the desirability of conserving these deposits to the fullest extent for the benefit of agriculture in the East, the South and a considerable portion of the Middle West.

At the same time, serious attention should be given to the development of the Western phosphate deposits in order that they may be made to serve economically the widest possible territory. It is evident that our main reliance for an adequate supply of phosphate must eventually be placed on our Western deposits.

As of December 1, 1936, the Government owned 2,124,904 acres of proven and potential phosphate lands in Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, and 66,916 acres in Florida. The Government owns no extensive areas of phosphate land in other States. Although an exact estimate of the tonnage of phosphate rock on Government land is not available, the quantity in the Western reserve no doubt exceeds 5 billion tons. It appears that only a small portion of the Florida supply is on Government land.

I call your special attention to the interesting and valuable work of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Agriculture in devising new processes for treating phosphate rock and for using the new types of phosphate products. This work promises to make the great Western deposits available to a large area of America.

These developments by themselves, however, will not lessen the drain on the comparatively small deposits in Tennessee and Florida because the methods of treatment can be used as well on these deposits as on those in the West. Inasmuch as the deposits in Tennessee and Florida are, and will continue to be, of vital-importance to American agriculture, it is to the national interest that they be conserved to the fullest extent.

The disposition of our phosphate deposits should be regarded as a national concern. 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.

I invite the especial attention of the Congress to the very large percentage of known phosphate rock which is on government owned land—probably three-quarters of the whole supply-and to the fact that the Eastern supply, while in private ownership, is today being exported in such quantities that when and if it is wholly depleted, Eastern farms will have to depend for their phosphate supply on the Far Western lands.

It is, therefore, high time for the Nation to adopt a national policy for the production and conservation of phosphates for the benefit of this and coming generations.

To the end that continuous and adequate supplies be insured, and that efficient forms of this key element, phosphorus, be available at the lowest cost throughout the country, I recommend that a joint committee of the Senate and of the House of Representatives be named to give study to the entire subject of phosphate resources, their use and service to American agriculture, and to make report to the next Congress.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress on Phosphates for Soil Fertility. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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