8 Commodities You Didn't Know Were Scarce
By Elizabeth Whittlesey Jun 28, 2012 12:45 pm
Everyone knows we're running out of oil, but have you heard the latest about chocolate, helium, and tequila?
MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL It's no secret that the global population is consuming various resources at a rate faster than they can be produced, the most notable example being fossil fuels. Everyone knows that we're rapidly depleting our stocks of petroleum and natural gas. But maple syrup? Helium? Water? Here, a look at eight commodities you didn't know were scarce.
Maple Syrup: A Sticky Situation|
You've been warned: The sweetest part of your Sunday brunch is in danger. Increasingly warmer temperatures have led to a decline in sugar maples' sap production -- the very sap that is boiled to produce maple syrup. Production of maple syrup relies on below-freezing night temperatures, something that was especially rare during this year's tropical Spring. Instead, many producers' saw their syrup-tapping season shrink from the traditional month to a mere one or two weeks, severely limiting production. According to The Guardian, this drop in production was seen across the United States, from Maine to Wisconsin. Say goodbye to Mrs. Buttersworth -- your Eggo (K) waffles will have to learn to stand alone.
Helium: Up, Up, and Away|
No helium means more than no balloons. From your iPhone's (AAPL) shiny LCD screen to the magnets powering an MRI, helium is used in almost every high-tech industry. Helium's range of uses is incredibly broad, but it is most frequently used as a coolant due to its low boiling point. Unfortunately, there are only two places where helium can be found: in the atmosphere, and in the ground. Extracting the gas from the atmosphere is incredibly inefficient, meaning our sole source of helium comes from underground reserves, 80% of which are controlled by the United States. This would be great, except for the fact that in 1996, Congress signed a law saying we had to sell off all of our helium by 2015. As a result, the market price of helium dropped well below its worth, leading to our stores being used so rapidly that some predict we could run out of helium in as few as 100 years.
Water: Global Thirst|
If you thought a bottle of Dasani (KO) was expensive now, think again. In the next century, worldwide shortages could cause a spike in the price of water, or "blue gold" as some are starting to call it, to rise above the price of oil. According to Reuters, water utilities across the country are already $330 billion in debt. While water covers more than 70% of the Earth's surface, the majority of that is undrinkable seawater. Unfortunately, at this point in time desalination plants are incredibly costly, both in terms of money and energy. Even more unfortunately, the global supply of fresh, drinkable water is dwindling at an alarming rate. Cities and states are already getting their water from sources hundreds of miles away. Multinational companies along with entrepreneurial businesspeople are quietly investing in water stocks. Conflict over water supplies is occurring even now in Asia and the Middle East. Some political analysts are predicting that tensions over this crucial resource could be the spark for a third world war.
Chocolate: Supplies Melting|
According to the director of the Nature Conservation Research Center, chocolate could become more expensive than caviar in the next 20 years. There are two reasons behind this. First, recent shifts in weather patterns, such as increased rainfall and higher temperature, have led to a decrease in cocoa supply. Additionally, the cocoa plant, which can only be grown within 10 degrees of the Equator, is highly susceptible to pests, and is incredibly time-consuming to cultivate. For all the back-breaking labor cocoa production requires, your average cocoa farmer can expect to earn a whopping $0.80 per day for his efforts. This means that for many, cocoa production simply isn't worth it. In an attempt to sweeten the task, large companies such as Hershey (HSY) and Kraft (KFT) are pledging millions toward improving sustainable cocoa development.
Phosphorus: The Commodity You Didn't Know You Cared About|
Phosphorus is a naturally-occurring element that is most commonly used in fertilizer, such as that produced by The Mosaic Company (MOS). With the world's ever-growing population, it is absolutely essential for maintaining global food production. As such, it's a pretty important commodity. According to Scientific American, it also might start running out by the end of this century, though it's likely to become a troubled resource long before then. Dwindling supplies are further exacerbated by our obsession with biofuels, which consume significant amounts of phosphorus without contributing to food production. If we don't find a fertilizer substitute soon, we could be facing a worldwide food shortage within the century.
Rare Earth Elements: Scarce, but Not Rare|
Don't let the name fool you -- rare earth elements are far from rare. What makes them such a scarce commodity is not their lack of abundance, but rather their lack of concentrated deposits that make mining worthwhile. Among the list of rare earth elements are metals such as dysprosium and cerium. Not ringing a bell? These minerals are the magic behind your smartphone, television, and hybrid car. Alas, China controls more than 95% of the world's production -- a monopoly they don't plan on relinquishing any time soon. Fortunately, companies such as Quest Rare Minerals Ltd. (QRM) and Rare Elements Resources Ltd. (REE) are currently investing in the search for rare earth deposits throughout North America.
Tequila: A Lost Spirit|
The push for ethanol may be behind the shortage of Mexico's signature drink. Tequila is produced by extracting and fermenting fructose from the blue agave cactus -- a plant which takes eight to 12 years to reach maturity. What's more, this variety of agave only grows in and around the Mexican state of Jalisco. But while popular brands such as Sauza (BEAM) were experiencing increasing demand, the ethanol boom made producing corn much more profitable for Mexican farmers -- leading many to destroy their agave crops. Ironically, some environmentalists are now saying that agave might make a more effective biofuel than corn-based ethanol...which would only further deplete the amount of cacti available for tequila production.
Resin: Brakes On|
Global production output of nylon-12, a resin critical for vehicle production (used in fuel and brakeline coatings, quick connectors, and flexible hoses, among other things), was essentially cut in half after a March 31 explosion at German chemical plant Evonik Industries. The blast led to the loss of production of Cyclododecatriene, a key component of nylon-12 that was already in low supply. In response, TI Automotive -- which supplies parts to international companies such as Ford (F), Toyota (TM), and General Motors (GM) -- issued a letter stating that disruptions in vehicle production are likely.
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