Injecting an industrial metal back into the ground could prove a boon for farmers and miners alike. The metal is zinc. Used mostly to reduce corrosion in iron and steel, zinc also is needed in trace amounts to keep humans and plants healthy.
Without it in their diets, people are prone to diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, and crops are stunted. The trouble is that farmland in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America is increasingly zinc deficient, leading to more than 450,000 deaths annually of children under age five, a 2008 study in The Lancet showed.
While use in agriculture remains small, sales of zinc-infused fertilizers from companies including Mosaic Co. are growing. Farmers are trying to boost yields by reviving soils deprived of nutrients by overuse and a changing climate.
Canada’s Teck Resources Ltd. has a test project in China. Another company is developing a mine in Nevada that may process ore just for crops. Expanding the market for zinc beyond steel and chemical producers would eventually bolster demand for the metal at a time of low stockpiles and surging prices.
“It’s slow growth, but it’s steady growth,” said Sean Davis, the principal analyst for a Houston-based unit of IHS Markit, a global mineral industry researcher. He estimates farmers will increase zinc use by about 4 percent annually over the next five years.
Last year, only about 270,000 metric tons of zinc was used on crops globally, IHS Markit estimates.
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