Scientists offer solutions to global phosphorus crisis that threatens food and water security
Phosphorus is an essential but often overlooked resource, vital to life on Earth, extracted from phosphate rock for use in crop fertilizers, animal feed and food additives. A major new report from scientists warns that global mismanagement of this finite nutrient is causing twin crises, which are sharply illustrated with fertilizer price increases in recent months.
Global food security remains under threat as many farmers struggle to afford adequate phosphorus fertilizer for their crops. Meanwhile, overuse of fertilizers and sewage pollution pumps millions of tons of phosphorus into lakes and rivers every year, harming biodiversity and deteriorating water quality.
The “Our Phosphorus Future” report is the most comprehensive global analysis of the challenges and potential solutions to the phosphorus crisis to date. It was written by a team of 40 international experts from 17 countries led by the UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and the University of Edinburgh, and is supported by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
The report calls on governments around the world to adopt a “50, 50, 50” target: 50 percent less global phosphorus pollution and 50 percent more recycling of the nutrient by the year 2050.
Recommendations in “Our Phosphorus Future” include:
- integration of animal husbandry and crop production, so that phosphorus in animal manure is applied to crops, reducing the demand for fertilizer;
- moving to more sustainable diets, which would reduce the amount of phosphorus needed to grow animal feed;
- reducing global food waste, meaning less demand for crops and animal products, and thus phosphorus (a recent UNEP report estimated global food waste from households, retail and the foodservice industry to total 931 million tons per year );
- improving wastewater treatment to remove phosphorus from sewage, so that it can be reused and does not end up in lakes and rivers.
Only four countries control about 70 percent of the annual global production of phosphate rock from which phosphorus is extracted, exposing the market to huge swings in cost and supply due to political disputes, trade wars and rising fuel prices. For example, the prices of both phosphate rock and fertilizer have risen by about 400 percent since 2020 and continue to rise. This instability exacerbates the effects of other global factors influencing fertilizer costs, such as the effect of the war in Ukraine on the cost of natural gas.
Professor Bryan Spears of UKCEH, one of the lead authors of the “Our Phosphorus Future” report, said: “Many countries rely heavily on imported phosphorus fertilizers for food production, exposing them to fertilizer price fluctuations. More efficient use of phosphorus in agriculture and increased recycling, for example of wastewater, can increase the resilience of the food system while reducing pollution of lakes and rivers, which are biodiversity hotspots and important for drinking water supplies.”
The report’s authors estimate that adopting the “50, 50, 50” target would create a food system that would provide enough phosphorus to sustain more than four times the current world population, saving farmers nearly US$20 billion. in annual costs for phosphorus fertilizers and an estimated annual cleanup bill of more than US$300 billion to remove phosphorus from polluted waterways.
Phosphorus pollution in lakes, rivers and coasts accelerates the growth of algal blooms that produce toxins that are harmful to animals and people who come into contact with or consume contaminated water. In the UK alone, the cost of responding to water-based phosphorus pollution is estimated at £170 million a year.
The experts hope their report will raise awareness of the need for sustainable phosphorus management by encouraging collaborations between scientists, governments, farmers and industries.
dr. Will Brownlie, a freshwater scientist from the University of Edinburgh who coordinated the “Our Phosphorus Future” report, says “no intergovernmental action has been taken so far”. , we hope that our report will not only provide solutions, but also be a catalyst for change towards sustainable management of this vital nutrient.”
Isabelle Vanderbeck of the United Nations Environment Programme, a co-author of the report, adds that “UNEP recognizes the complexity of the nutrient challenge and the potential for economic benefits from improving phosphorus sustainability. damage from phosphorus mismanagement.”
Quantification of phosphorus needs of smallholder farmers in tropical regions
Provided by UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology
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