Global Agriculture

Scientists offer solutions to global phosphorus crisis threatening food and water security

10 June 2022, UK: Phosphorus is an essential but often overlooked resource, which is vital for life on Earth and is extracted from phosphate rock for use in crop fertilisers, livestock feeds and food additives. A major new report by scientists warns that global mismanagement of this finite nutrient is causing twin crises, brought into sharp focus with fertiliser prices skyrocketing in recent months.

The Our Phosphorus Future report is the most comprehensive global analysis of the challenges and possible solutions to the phosphorus crisis to date. It has been written by a team of 40 international experts from 17 countries led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and the University of Edinburgh, featuring contributions from researchers at the James Hutton Institute. The publication is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report calls on governments across the world to adopt a ’50, 50, 50′ goal: a 50 per cent reduction in global pollution of phosphorus and a 50 per cent increase in recycling of the nutrient by the year 2050. Such a model would create a food system that would provide enough phosphorus to sustain over four times the current global population, save farmers nearly US $20 billion in annual phosphorus fertiliser costs and avoid a projected yearly clean-up bill of over US $300 billion to remove phosphorus from polluted water courses.

Recommendations in Our Phosphorus Future include:

  • Integrating livestock and crop production so phosphorus in animal manure is applied to crops, reducing the demand for chemical fertilisers;
  • Moving towards 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 therefore phosphorus (a recent UNEP report estimated global food waste from households, retail establishments and the food service industry totals 931 million tonnes each year);
  • Improving wastewater treatment to remove phosphorus from sewage, so it can be reused and does not enter lakes and rivers.

Professor Bryan Spears of UKCEH, one of the lead authors of the report, said: “Many countries are highly dependent on imported phosphorus fertiliser for food production, leaving them exposed to fertiliser price fluctuations. More efficient use of phosphorus in agriculture and increased recycling, for example from wastewater, can increase resilience in the food system while reducing pollution of lakes and rivers that are biodiversity hotspots and important for drinking water supply.”

Professor Marc Stutter, a senior researcher at the Environmental and Biochemical Sciences department of the James Hutton Institute and co-author of the report, said: “It is great to see this united voice from such a truly global group of researchers. The recommendations and the opportunity to raise awareness of the broader environmental, resource and societal issues around the nutrient phosphorus come at a critical time for farming internationally. Phosphorus resources are already affecting farmer’s options for fertilisers and will soon ripple through food and fodder prices.

“Such a report and current issues should make us more proactive at restructuring the global system of phosphorus usage and reuse and wider the impacts for soils and waters.”

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