Phosphorus – A Silent Emergency

If I asked you to list the greatest challenges facing the world right now, you might first think of COVID-19, the climate crisis, or the resurgence of populism. You might not think of phosphorus, or the lack thereof. Phosphorus is essential to human life, and critically, it is one of the three most important plant nutrients and essential for the global food production. According to the UN, the rising global population will plateau at around eleven billion people towards the end of this century. And yet, our global phosphorus reserves are expected to peak in the 2030’s and decline steadily afterwards. To secure long-term food security, it is vital that we start to implement measures to ensure a sustainable use of this resource in the near future. 

Why Is Phosphorus So Important?

To comprehend the dimensions of a potential phosphorus scarcity, it is key to understand two of its characteristics: It is both non-replaceable and finite. According to Liebig’s Law, plant growth will always be stifled by its limiting factor: the least available nutrient. This means that a plant which does not have enough phosphorus will not thrive, even if other nutrients are plentiful. Up until the 19th century, the phosphorus used in agriculture came mainly from manure. The nutrient cycle was a relatively closed loop, however the discovery that phosphorus can be mined changed this fact. Today, most phosphorus comes from geological deposits of phosphate rock, and therefore has certain environmental boundaries, which are depleting at an alarming rate. 

Unequal Distribution: Phosphorus Is in The Hands of Few

85% of the remaining phosphorus reserves are controlled by five countries: Morocco, China, Algeria, Jordan, and Syria. Morocco alone is in possession of 75% of available deposits, due to its control over Western Sahara. The OCP Group, which is owned by the King of Morocco, is the largest company in the field of phosphorus mining and production. The US previously held the largest reserve, but estimates suggest that they will have been depleted within 25 years. Australia, India, the European Union, and Sub-Saharan Africa rely heavily on imports. This distribution presents both potential risks and rewards. On the one hand, it can create market instability. Caused by a risk of price spikes, fluctuations in availability and monopoly formation. On the other hand, there is the opportunity for collaboration.  Researchers agree that cooperation will be a key requirement for more sustainable phosphorus management.

Phosphorus Governance: Mind the Gap!

Despite the blatant inequality, the extraction and use of phosphorus is barely governed. In fact, phosphorus only seems to have come to policy makers attention as recently as 2008 when China raised the export tariffs on phosphorus by 100%, leading to a rise of the global price rose from around $50 to $430 per ton. Research suggests that this led to a rise in global awareness on the value of phosphorus. In 2009, the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) was launched by the UN, which tries to promote a more sustainable use of these dwindling reserves. The GPNM works with various partners such as universities, agricultural ministries, companies, and civil society organizations to “steer dialogues and actions to promote effective nutrient management” (GPNM).

In 2013, the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform was established with the primary goal of enhancing the knowledge exchange on sustainable phosphorus use between a similarly developed countries. A year afterwards, phosphorus appeared on the EU List of Critical Raw Materials. It is the only mineral on this list that is directly linked to food security, which is “a clear signal from the EU that there is concern about the security of R[aw] P[hosphorus] supply”. Regarding EU law, researchers found that there is a severe lack of legal basis to ensure a sustainable use of phosphorus. When Hukari, Hermann, and Nättorp looked into the matter, one of their main conclusions was that “current EU-legislation neither hinders nor actively supports building of recovery installations.” In other words, the EU is aware of a potential phosphorus shortage, but the current legislation is not yet sufficient to prevent it.

A Problem We Could Solve, Or: How to Phosphor

Phosphorus can be recovered from wastewater and some countries and communities are already follow this method. The city of Zurich has developed plans for a phosphorus recycling station. An analysis showed that Switzerland could cover the majority of its phosphorus usage by recycling. Research also suggests other strategies for a sustainable use of phosphorus. Cordell and White point out that 80% of phosphorus “is lost between the mine and the fork.” Much of the loss occurs in the mining process, alongside the production of waste which contains heavy metals such as Cadmium and radioactive material. Some inefficiencies occur in the agricultural system and the consumption process such as with food waste, for example. Another opportunity to reduce inefficiency exists in changing our diet. Meat-based nutrition requires a much higher quantity of phosphorus in production than plant-based nutrition. 

Phosphorus is vital to ensure long-term food security. Despite this reality our current way of using our reserve is not sustainable. Nevertheless, scarcity can be avoided if we take immediate and decisive action. Phosphorus must be recycled and reused; it must be processed and utilized as efficiently as possible. Changes must be implemented, not only in the mining process, but also in the agricultural system, the food industry, as well as in our daily dietary choices. Such change need to be orchestrated on all levels, from the individual to the regional, national, and most importantly international levels through cooperation and collaboration. Governance is key to ensuring a sustainable use of phosphorus. 

Edited by Yegor Sheshtunov