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Scarcity of phosphorus threat to global food production
11 March 2010
Phosphorus is just as important to agriculture as water. But a lack of availability and accessibility of phosphorus is an emerging problem that threatens our capacity to feed the global population. Like nitrogen and potassium, it is a nutrient that plants take up from the soil and it is crucial to soil fertility and crop growth.
“Unless something is done, the scarcity of phosphorous will cause problems of a global dimension. As early as 2035 it is calculated that the demand for phosphorus map outpace the supply,” says Dana Cordell, who presented her thesis at the Department of Thematic Studies – Water and Environmental Studies, Linköping University, Sweden on the implications of phosphorus scarcity on global food security.
Phosphorous is extracted from phosphate rock, a non-renewable resource that is used almost exclusively in agriculture. Two thirds of the world’s resources are in China, Morocco, and Western Sahara.
“The demand for phosphorus has increased and prices soared by 800 percent between 2006 and 2008,” says Dana Cordell.
Cordell maintains that the shortage of phosphorus in not simply due to a drop in the availability of phosphate ore. Many of the world’s farmers do not have enough purchasing power to be able to afford and use phosphorus-based fertilizer, which means their soil is becoming depleted. What’s more, phosphorus use in the food system from mine to field to fork is currently so inefficient that only one fifth of the phosphorus in the rock that is mined actually makes its way into our food.
“There is a lack of effective international governance to secure long-term access to phosphorus for food production,” says Dana Cordell, who adds that the way phosphorus resources are handled needs to be improved.
Phosphorus needs to be applied and management in agriculture more efficiently, we need to eat more vegetarian food, and increase efficiency throughout the food chain. At the same time we need to recover and reuse a large part of the phosphorus that exists in crop residues, food waste, manures human faeces and other sources.
“If nothing is done, food production runs the risk of a hard landing in the future, including further fertilizer price increases, increasing environmental effects of pollution, energy and resource consumption, smaller harvests, reduced farmer livelihoods and reduced food security,” says Dana Cordell.
The dissertation is titled The Story of Phosphorus: Sustainability Implications of Global Phosphorus Scarcity for Food Security and can be downloaded at: