14 MIN

The Great Phosphorus Challenge

The Phosphorus Challenge

When one thinks of the element phosphorus the mind usually starts thinking of match sticks or other flammable properties- but aside from starting a fire, phosphorus plays a huge role in global agriculture and food production. Phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient and almost all phosphorus production is used for agricultural fertilizers to grow food.


Interestingly, in the last half of the 20th century phosphorus production for agriculture increased dramatically due to globalization and developed nations adopting industrialized agriculture methods. Around the 1970’s and 1980’s America’s production of food commodities shot up, and so did the use of artificial nitrogen-phosphorus fertilizers. It was not yet widely known that phosphorus is a finite (limited) resource.Primarily phosphorus is found in the earth’s crust, but is actually very scarce in concentrated forms, and phosphorus is also not evenly distributed across earth.


Currently, earth’s phosphorus is being depleted at a frightening rate- if humans keep using phosphorus at our current amount, we will be out of reserves in 80 years. Right now the biggest producers includeMorocco, China, and the United States but other large concentrations of phosphorus have been found in Russia, Egypt, Alergia, Peru, and Brazil- and it is worth noting Morocco produces 70% of the earth’s phosphorus.


Many scientists believe there will be a ‘PeakPhosphorus’ event around the year of 2050- this hypothesizes that the mining and production of phosphorus will increase so much in the next 20-30 years that by the time 2050 rolls around there will be no phosphorus left on earth. To quell any reader’s anxiety, studies have shown that each country has not adequately explored for this element, which means there could be other concentrations of phosphorus that simply have not yet been found.

It is important to consider the delicate balance of phosphorus’s role in agriculture; if there is too little, food scarcity and agriculture disruption is guaranteed but if there is too much- pollution on a catastrophic level is also certain. Phosphorus from farming, toilets, and waste all contributes to declining water quality around the world due to the run off phenomena.  Too much phosphorus can devastate aquatic ecosystems, many scientists say phosphorus runoff is a direct contributor to the increasing ocean algae blooms that hurt wildlife and detract from these ecosystem’s natural beauty. Algae blooms make the water appear cloudy, greenish, and sometimes a little smelly- not appealing for people trying to enjoy natural water features as well as hurting the native plants and animals that live in the water. Not only can phosphorus runoff hurt wild life, but it can also negatively affect tourism- specifically beach communities that have to come up with ways to remove the smelly algae and seaweeds from beaches.

Historically speaking, phosphorus shortages have occurred before but the population was never as dense as it is now, and if we look at England in the 18th century we can see an example of how a country dealt with running out of its domestic reserves for phosphorus. In 18th centuryEngland, the most common source for phosphorus was manure and bones- but centuries of cultivation had depleted Britain's soil of nutrients. So the solution was to search abroad for phosphorus supplies, but sometime during the1840’s geologists discovered phosphorus rich stones buried in the fields and meadows around Cambridge. These stones turned out to be fossilized feces and became known as, coprolites, and were a great natural source of phosphorus, and despite being old dung these stones turned out to be incredibly useful as a fertilizer.


So what can we do in 2023, knowing that the current way phosphorus is used in food production is unsustainable? If 18th centuryBritain was able to figure it out, there must be a solution? As previously stated, phosphorus is found in all living things, it is not a coincidence that fossilized human waste and other fossilized materials are great sources of phosphorus. Theoretically there must be a sustainable and practical way to convert our waste and agriculture waste efficiently into phosphorus.


Not surprisingly, a good example of this is beginning to be utilized in Europe- Yara, one of the world’s largest fertilizer vendors has partnered with an European waste management company, Veolia, to start recycling phosphorus from agriculture and food waste. Sweden as well has started to look into ways to increase phosphorus production by researching a circular economy for phosphorus; basically recycling biomass waste and human excreta and using it for phosphorus production, creating a sustainable flow. It is theorized that the phosphorus recirculation theory could more or less balance out today’s current output rate, but that does not account for stopping production of mined phosphorus, a still unsustainable practice.

Another hypothesis on why phosphorus production has gotten out of control and a solution to help bring it back on track, would be the separation of farming practices. Farming used to be done using polyculture practices, farmers would grow multiple crops and tend to multiple live stock breeds, but in the 20th century America adopted monoculture farming.


Monoculture farming has been linked to many environmental problems, but in relating monoculture farming to the increased use of phosphorus look no further than livestock production. Livestock and farming used to be done side by side, which allowed farmers to easily recycle manure and use it as fertilizer. When grain farmers separated from live stock farmers that natural recycling process stopped, so now there is a surplus of live stock generated phosphorus that pollutes the water supply and contributes to runoff. An example of this is the Chesapeake Bay, the waterways near Wisconsin’s famous dairy country, and Lake Erie; according to a study done by Geneieve Metson- an environmental scientist at a university in Sweden-  about 55 pounds of phosphorus are released into the environment for every pound of phosphorus consumed in U.S. raised beef- more than half of which comes from manure.


In conclusion, the world has a huge phosphorus problem that the general public knows little, if anything, about. The way we currently use phosphorus is 100% necessary for food production, but it is completely and unequivocally unsustainable, and will lead to catastrophic failures if a sustainable solution is not implemented and utilized- and soon.What we know about phosphorus- how it is mined, how it occurs naturally, where and how it is found in nature, we know there are sustainable ways to increase phosphorus production without harming the environment and water quality. Using a combination of recirculation of waste techniques and re-structuring industrial farming would drastically help and off-set our increasing phosphorus use while also cutting down on runoff pollution and preserving a finite resource.