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‘Biggest problem you’ve never heard of’: Peak phosphorus

Next week, a US university will unveil a new initiative aimed at addressing the “biggest problem you’ve never heard of”: peak phosphorus.

James Elser, an Arizona State University (ASU) ecologist who’s one of the researchers helping to launch the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative on Earth Day (April 22), warns that our current consumption of phosphorus (P) is “not sustainable.” Produced by mining, phosphorus is a key component of fertilisers, making it as critical to agriculture as water is.

The problem is, most of the world’s phosphorus reserves — almost 90 per cent — are found in only five countries: Morocco/Western Sahara, China, South Africa, Jordan and the US. US resources, however, are limited to just 12 mines, and those are expected to be picked clean over the next 20 to 30 years.

“Sustainability needs to become a priority,” says Daniel Childers, a professor in the School of Sustainability and another leader behind the initiative. “Many regions of the world are completely dependent on imports for fertiliser. We need new ways to recycle, reclaim and reuse what we have.”

“The solutions are out there,” Elser adds. “We just need to start thinking now. Conservation of P is one effective strategy. In the pathway from mine, to farmer, to fork, and beyond, there is significant P waste.”

Among the sources of phosphorus that could be better tapped are urine, feces and agricultural runoff. And people could reduce their phosphorus footprint by adopting a vegetarian diet.

While forecasts of when we might reach peak phosphorus range from 2034 to 2070 or later, the tipping point could come earlier if peak oil kicks in before then.

“Energy use impacts not just mining, but also packing, storing, transporting and applying phosphate rock and fertilisers,” says Donald Burt, an ASU geologist.

A growing world population and rising global middle class also enters into the mix by creating an increased demand for food and, thus, fertilisers. That’s putting pressure on the phosphorus market, which saw prices rise by 400 per cent over a recent 14-month period.

The Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative’s aim is to build a scientific consensus on the scope of the P resource challenge, help create a global network focused on building phosphorus sustainability, and inspire behavioural changes for P conservation and recycling.

“By closing the phosphorus cycle, countries, cities, and families will become more secure and more affluent, while living in a healthier environment free of the degrading impacts of widespread nutrient pollution,” the initiative’s website states.

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