Knowledge for Development

Phosphorus depletion

Phosphorus (P) is an essential resource for global food production. However, crop production, especially in acid soils, is hampered by poor P-use efficiency, creating a demand for P fertilizers. The increased demand for food to feed a growing human population, estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, has in turn increased demand for P fertilizers. There is significant concern about the depletion of phosphate rock (PR) resources, but also uncertainty about how long the existing deposits will last and whether further deposits can be found.

Two lead articles were produced for this dossier and can accessed below on this page.

P.O. Kisinyo et al., Chepkoilel University College, Kenya in their article, “Phosphorus depletion – should the ACP countries be concerned? What are the current issues for future research and policy?”, examine the extent of the problem and propose options for the ACP region.

A second article, by Bert Smit, plant Research Institute, Wageningen University and Research Centre, “Phosphorus depletion: an invisible crisis?” considers the evidence on the current status of depletion. Smit notes that the return flow of phosphorus from society to agriculture is decreasing and that the use and governance of the remaining reserves is far from sustainable.

This folder also contains links to documentary resources, which provide more insights on the following; assessing phosphorus levels, phosphorus depletion and application of phosphorus as well as information on the industry, geology and sustainability issues.

This folder was compiled and edited by CABI and CTA, May, 2011.

Phosphorus depletion – should the ACP countries be concerned? What are the current issues for future research and policy?

by P.O. Kisinyo, W.K. Ng’etich, C.O. Othieno, J.R. Okalebo and W.R. Opile Department of Soil Science, Chepkoilel University College, PO Box 1125-30100, Eldoret, Kenya.
P.O. Kisinyo et al., Chepkoilel University College, Kenya in their lead article, “Phosphorus depletion – should the ACP countries be concerned? What are the current issues for future research and policy?”, examine the extent of the problem and propose options for the ACP region. They note that phosphorus deficiency limits crop production in many acid soils of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, mainly because of its fixation and the inherently low P levels in soils of these regions. In addition to using inorganic and organic sources for improving availability, they suggest that using crop germplasm that is tolerant to aluminium (Al) toxicity and is P-use efficient is important. However, the contradictory information on how long the existing phosphorus rock (PR) deposits will last makes it difficult to plan for its long-term utilization. Given the current state of knowledge on location of PR, the authors highlight the need for more information on the extent of and location of resources. 01/06/2011
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Phosphorus depletion: an invisible crisis?

by A.L. (Bert) Smit, Plant Research International, Wageningen UR, The Netherlands.
A lead article by Bert Smit, Plant Research Institute, Wageningen University and Research Centre, “Phosphorus depletion: an invisible crisis?” considers the evidence on the current status of depletion. Smit notes that the return flow of phosphorus from society to agriculture is decreasing and that the use and governance of the remaining reserves is far from sustainable. He highlights the scarcity of P management and the economic, institutional and geopolitical scarcity and expresses a hope that the world will realize some fundamental changes and reverse the downward trends before a physical scarcity of P becomes apparent. Smit suggests that future research must monitor baseline data for global PR reserves and trade, include a country-level analysis of P inputs and outputs to identify the most effective measures and policies, (agricultural) valorisation and reuse of societal waste products and plant breeding for rooting characteristics that would lead to a better use of the available P in the soil profile. 01/06/2011
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The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) is a collaboration between independent research institutes in Europe, Australia and North America. The main objective of the GPRI is to facilitate quality interdisciplinary research on global phosphorus security for future food production. In addition to research, the GPRI also facilitates networking, dialogue and awareness raising among policy makers, industry, scientists and the community on the implications of global phosphorus scarcity and possible solutions. The GPRI was co-founded in early 2008 by researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), and the Department of Water and Environmental Studies at Linköping University, Sweden. Today, GPRI members also include the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in Sweden, the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada and Wageningen University in The Netherlands. 03/05/2011
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Soil Association. 2010In the UK, and internationally, there has been no serious discussion of, or action on, what peak phosphorus means for food security. A radical rethink of how we farm, what we eat and how we deal with human excreta, so that adequate phosphorus levels can be maintained for crop production without reliance on mined phosphate, is crucial for ensuring our future food supplies. In this report the actions needed to close the loop on the phosphorus cycle to address future shortages and prevent further environmental damage from phosphate pollution are set out. 01/06/2011
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The EcoSanRes Programme, in collaboration with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), is developing guidelines for the agricultural use of urine and faeces. The guidelines aim to educate ecological sanitation users about how to handle the urine and faeces in a safe and beneficial manner and thus promote the use of human excreta in agriculture. The use of human excreta as a fertilizer is beneficial from environmental, economic and social perspectives. Increasing crop yields through the use of sanitized urine and faeces is cost-effective (requiring only an investment in the ecosan toilet and secondary treatment system), and greater crop yields increase nutrition in the household and help to alleviate poverty. In addition, use of human excreta in agriculture aids in gender development, especially in households headed by women since these are often the poorest, by creating a possible source of income and improved nutrition. The guidelines are developed by gathering information from previously conducted experiments and comparing human excreta (as a fertilizer) to commercially produced chemical fertilizers. The guideline will be adapted to various climates and crops. 01/06/2011
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Global reserves of phosphorus are running out and, since plants need phosphate to grow, this poses an enormous challenge for global food production in the foreseeable future. A shortage of phosphate could ultimately result in large-scale famine and social-political turmoil. Surprisingly, phosphorus depletion did not seem to be on the political agenda some time ago. In order to increase awareness of these problems, the Netherlands Water Partnership, WASTE and Plant Research International initiated a one-year DPRN process to place the issue on the Dutch and European political agendas. 01/06/2011
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