The “Phosphorus Crisis” and How to Manage It

phosphorus water pollution 2022
Phosphorus fertilizer abuse has led to what some refer to as the “phosphorus crisis”.

Phosphorus is an essential yet overlooked resource. It is one of the most widely used elements in plant fertilizers. It can also be added to livestock feeds and food additives. However, phosphorus fertilizer abuse has led to what some refer to as the “phosphorus crisis”. A major new report warns that global mismanagement of this finite nutrient is causing twin crises, brought into sharp focus with fertilizer prices skyrocketing in recent months.

Our Phosphorus Future

The “Our Phosphorus Future” report is probably the most comprehensive global analysis of the challenges and solutions to the phosphorus crisis to date. Written by a team of 40 experts from 17 countries, the research was supported by the UN Environment Program. The research was led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and the University of Edinburgh.

The report calls on governments across the world to adopt a «50, 50, 50» goal: a 50 percent reduction in global pollution of phosphorus and a 50 percent increase in recycling of the nutrient by the year 2050. Among recommendations there is integrating livestock and crop production so phosphorus in animal manure is applied to crops to decrease the demand for chemical fertilizers, and upgrading water treatment systems.

Another call is the urge to focus on food waste. Studies estimate that about one-third of all food is thrown away, equalling 1.3 bln tons of global food waste a year. Redistribution of food resources will relieve the pressure on agriculture and, consequently, help decrease the need for chemical fertilizers.

Reality and Prospects

Only four countries control around 70 percent of the annual global production of phosphate rock from which phosphorus is extracted, leaving the market exposed to massive fluctuations in costs and supply due to political disputes, trade wars and escalating fuel prices. Since 2020, for example, the prices of both phosphate rock and fertilizer have increased by around 400 percent, and continue to rise. This instability exacerbates the impacts of other global factors influencing fertilizer costs, such as the effect of the war in Ukraine on the cost of natural gas.

«Many countries are highly dependent on imported phosphorus fertilizer for food production, leaving them exposed to fertilizer 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,» — Bryan Spears, UKCEH.

The report claims that adapting the “50, 50, 50” goal 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 fertilizer costs and avoid a projected yearly clean-up bill of over US $300 billion to remove phosphorus from polluted water courses. The research team hopes that their report will raise awareness of the phosphorus crisis and stimulate further action on every level.