Looking for something new to worry about? Phosphorus hops onto the list of rapidly diminishing natural resources: a dangerous dwindling of something that probably never crossed your mind. Production will likely peak in our lifetime, and be fully depleted by 2100. So what’s the big deal? Phosphorus is the bedrock of food production.
This solid chemical element, most commonly found in inorganic phosphate rocks, was discovered in the late 1600’s by a German alchemist who experimented with his pee. Hennig Brand earned that cringe-worthy credit: on the Periodic Table of Elements, his discovery is named P15.
The element is frisky. It glows in the dark and can spontaneously oxidize. It was a key ingredient in matchstick production throughout the 1800s until it was linked to accidental poisonings, suicides and murders. It was banned from match making by the end of that century, but it didn’t go away. It couldn’t, because phosphorus is essential for life.
Phosphorous doesn’t occur freely in nature. It’s found instead in the form of phosphates, particularly calcium phosphates, and it seeps into soils via rock erosion.
Phosphorus also enters the food cycle through animal excrement. Manure is direct-deposited onto fields by livestock, or purposely gathered and spread by farmers. Enriched soils help fertilize crops which are then consumed by humans and animals alike. Historically, the element returned to the soil via the eat/poop process, a natural continuum.
Bone ash was another source of manufactured phosphorus, but when the electric arc furnace was developed in 1890, extracting phosphorous from mined rock became economically scalable. It quickly became the only commercial source, an industry fully dependent upon non-renewable phosphate rock.
A closed phosphorous biogeochemical loop, ‘til we broke it.
Food industrialization caused a biological custody battle: one branch took the animals and the other got the crops. Specialization affords benefits: but it also changes the recycling of basic elements.
Recall that German alchemist? He demonstrated that the phosphorus we eat comes out in the bathroom. Modern sanitation whisks it far away from arable lands. The phosphates become sewerage treatment side products, ending up in our waterways (a topic for a different article). We now segregate pastures from crop fields. With less access to manure, farmers turn to costly manufactured soil enhancers. Phosphate fertilizer use surged in the 20th century.
Diminished supplies threaten the world’s ability to provide enough food. We need a universal strategy to ensure that farmers have sufficient access to meet production demands. It’s time for policy action on global phosphorus security.
About 90% of all high-grade phosphorus reserves are found in five countries: China, South Africa, the United States, Jordan and Morocco.
The Moroccan royal family controls approximately 85% of that total. Lesser reserves are located in Israel, Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia.
Morocco’s Western Sahara mines are in an area of mounting human rights concerns, and exports are partially restricted due to United Nations sanctions. Next up, in terms of supply, is China, but their exports were recently stymied by a self-imposed national tariff. That tariff was lifted, but it illustrates how this critical commodity could easily be affected by trade wars.
Industrial farmers lay down about 18 million metric tons of mined phosphorus each year. Our ever-increasing meat consumption and new crop production to feed a growing biofuels industry spiked demand in 2008, and phosphate rock prices jumped by 800%. Despite the global economic crisis, prices never returned to pre-2008 levels and are, in fact, increasing. It’s the “beachfront property” of the food industry: they aren’t making any more of it, so value soars.
Help Wanted: International Phosphorus Regulation
It took two decades following the discovery of ozone depletion before the Montreal Protocol was enacted. It’s time to take similar action to develop sustainable policies for renewable phosphorus fertilizers.
Currently, the market governs this resource, but open markets don’t protect against inequitable and unsustainable consumption. International partnerships must evolve to support efficient use and equitable access by all players in the global food game.
Researchers are forming alliances such as the Global Phosphorous Research Initiative, championed by Paul Crutzen, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ozone. There’s also the Dutch Nutrient Platform.
Sustainable options for phosphorus replacement are limited.
There’s a growing movement amongst small farmers towards integrated systems of animal and plant production. Practices such as crop rotation and sequential grazing allow soils to replenish. Biodiversity fights disease and minimizes pest infestation. Waste generated from sustainable farming stays within the farm’s ecosystem; phosphorous rejoins the biogeochemical conga line.
In the late 1800’s, Rudolf Steiner, organic farming guru, gave birth to “biodynamic agriculture”, emphasizing balanced interaction between animals, plants and soil. It’s a symbiotic relationship between all three; a philosophy founded on conservation. Replenish what’s removed from the environment. Preserve water, soil, nutrients and air so they are available in perpetuity.
Farmers can attune to natural cycles. Seasonal flooding has cultivated farmland for thousands of years, returning lost nutrients: consider the Nile. Biochar is effective. Human waste can be converted to phosphate fertilizers such as struvite.
Public awareness must be raised. Popularize “meat-free” days to reduce global impact on the phosphorous cycle. Urge support of small, local farms. These measures have proven successful on a modest scale, but how do they go mainstream?
Last February, the 3rd Sustainable Phosphorus Summit held in Sydney, Australia attracted key stakeholders from different parts of the food production and consumption chain. Focus was on phosphorus availability and accessibility, global food security, environmental protection, and supporting agricultural livelihoods. Delegates were challenged to develop a roadmap for prioritizing research and policy action. The goal was to inform decision-makers as to the best forward path.
Immediate news coverage spoke of national phosphorus recovery targets. Cap and trade schemes were floated, akin to carbon emissions, and subsidy programs were assessed. Not quite sure where it all ended up: the media trail goes cold.
Clearly the issues are becoming more defined. Solutions will depend on solid relationships between policy, public awareness and scientific research. This problem needs a champion.
Image of wavellite mineral sample, an element used in the extraction of phosphorus from Shutterstock