No More Phosphorus For Us

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Phosphate mine in Utah | Source:

While most people might be familiar with nitrogen’s role in crop production, there is another essential nutrient our food system relies on that is in short supply: phosphorus. Phosphorus is vital to all life on the planet because it helps plants and other organisms transfer energy (Carolan). Like nitrogen, it is used in fertilizer to replenish the exhausted soil on modern farmlands. Waiting for phosphorus to recycle naturally would take millions of years, so modern agriculture has found a way to circumvent this lengthy geological process by mining deep into the earth for phosphate rock. However, phosphate rock is running out. While there is technically enough phosphate rock available on the planet to last hundreds of years at our current rate of consumption, the majority of it is inaccessible. What we can access will be depleted in 75 to 100  years—that is, if we don’t increase consumption (Carolan). If we take into account the increased demand expected for phosphorus over the next few decades, the stores may be gone much sooner. Without phosphate rock to use in fertilizer, we could not produce crops at the rate we do today and will find ourselves facing food crises around the world.

There are some things we can do to prolong the world’s supply of phosphate rock. We can mitigate a lack of phosphorus by both reducing demand and using more efficient farming techniques. Modern farmers can make the transition to alternative practices that are more efficient, like no-till farming and terracing. Reducing the production of biofuels can also help stave off a phosphorus shortage, as biomass would be left in the fields to break down and return phosphorus to the soil (Carolan). There are even some choices we can make as individuals to reserve phosphorus. Minimizing food waste and eating less meat and dairy are both ways to lower consumption of phosphorus. Phosphorus levels are just one of the many challenges the world food system will face in the coming decades. It will take a concerted global effort to change the wasteful practices of the food industry and the habits of the world’s most excessive consumers.

Carolan, Michael S. The Real Cost of Cheap Food. London: Earthscan, 2011. Kindle Edition.

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