Concerns Over Peak Phosphorus

The phosphorus crisis is the biggest issue that is still relatively foreign to the general public. Phosphorus is essential to the way we currently live and we are rapidly depleting this resource, to the tune of reaching peak phosphorus or the maximum production level of phosphorus by 2030 according to some researchers.

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You may be wondering why phosphorus is so essential to our way of life. Simple. Agriculture. Plants rely on phosphorus to manufacture healthy cells. Human research and innovation has discovered this basic function and engineered a process to more efficiently produce food for the growing population. Without the phosphorus additives for the world’s crops, there would not be enough food.

The two major concerns surrounding phosphorus are pollution and scarcity. Phosphorus pollution occurs from fertilizer run off. The U.S. Geological Survey discovered in their “Review of Phosphorus Control Measures in the United States and Their Effects on Water Quality” that phosphorus is entering the U.S. waterways. While the pollution evidence is damning and needs correction, scarcity is the more pressing concern.

Phosphorus is primarily used for increased agricultural yields, necessary for the increasing population. More phosphorus is necessary to supply the demanded amount of sustenance as the population grows. This is a very serious issue, as the world population shows no indication of slowing and the current projections for phosphorus consumption is unsustainable. Phosphorus, like many other fossil fuels, is not spread evenly around the world. Morocco is single-handedly believed to hold up to 85% of the world’s phosphate reserves. A more conservative estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey is below. Most of Morocco’s phosphate mines are located in the disputed Western Sahara, where human rights concerns continue to grow and turmoil is apparent. Reaching the peak phosphorus level couldn’t come at a worse time. The demand will eventually surpass the supply, most likely sooner rather than later, which allows Morocco to exploit their resource advantage. This will primarily affect the developing countries that will no longer be able to afford phosphorus. Unfortunately, developing countries also tend to be where population growth is the most severe and where phosphorus is needed the most.

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So, how do we go about solving this problem? The three techniques I suggest are:

  1. Reduce the demand of phosphorus by reducing fertilizer use
  2. Recycle and limit waste
  3. Explore new reserves to discover the true total phosphate levels

The benefit that comes from the fertilizer does not dissipate within the time farmers wait to re-fertilize. The phosphorus remains in the soil for an extended period and remains beneficial for varying lengths of time depending on the pH levels of the soil. A more in depth description of the phosphorus cycle by the Nutrient Management research team at the University of Minnesota can be found here, while a brief description can be seen below.

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The main take away is that too much phosphorus is wasted in the agricultural process through the overuse of fertilizer. Systems have been created to monitor the amount of fertilizer necessary at any given time. This would limit the overuse of fertilizer, which limits the waste of phosphorus.

Phosphorus recycling primarily occurs in sewage treatment. The natural way to replenish the phosphorus levels in the earth is through fecal waste, so the sewage plants use this process to produce more phosphorus. In addition, phosphate is wasted daily during transportation and storage processes. Limiting this careless waste through stricter company regulations could benefit the phosphorus levels. The everyday person is also able to contribute. There are many grassroots organizations that try to help through education. They attempt to inform the farmers about conservation and recycling methods, while they inform households about the issue and the potential for recycling through alternative waste treatment (Akinola 42).

The World Phosphate Rock Reserves and Resources report states, “Estimates of reserves range from 15,000 mmt to over 1,000,000 mmt” (Van Kauwenbergh 41). No one knows the true amount of phosphorus left. This makes predicting sustainable consumption very difficult. The first thing we need to do is understand how much phosphorus is remaining. More research needs to be done on the phosphate reserves and government funding can help with that.

Phosphorus scarcity is a huge concern, but if handled with proper care, is solvable. The recommendations I have made are a strong start, but more research and advancement is necessary to accomplish the sustainable goals of society.

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