Scientists warn of ‘Phosphogeddon’ as critical fertilizer shortages loom

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Our planet is facing Phosphogeddon, scientists warn. They fear our misuse of phosphorus could lead to deadly fertilizer shortages that would disrupt global food production.

At the same time, phosphate fertilizers leached from fields – combined with runoff into rivers, lakes and seas – lead to widespread algal blooms and create aquatic dead zones that threaten fish stocks.

In addition, overuse of the element is increasing releases of methane across the planet, contributing to global warming and the climate crisis caused by carbon emissions, researchers warn.

“We have reached a critical tipping point,” said Prof Phil Haygarth of Lancaster University. “We may be able to turn back, but we really need to pull ourselves together and be a lot smarter about the way we use phosphorus. If we don’t, we face a catastrophe we call ‘Phosphogeddon’.”

Phosphorus was discovered in 1669 by German scientist Hennig Brandt, who isolated it from urine, and it has been shown to be essential to life ever since. Bones and teeth are made up largely of the mineral calcium phosphate—a compound derived from it—while the element also provides DNA with its sugar-phosphate backbone.

‘To put it simply, there is no life on earth without phosphorus,’ explained Prof Penny Johnes of the University of Bristol.

The element’s global importance lies in its use to support plant growth. About 50 million tons of phosphate fertilizer are sold worldwide each year, and these supplies play a vital role in feeding the planet’s 8 billion people.

However, only a few countries have significant phosphorus deposits: Morocco and Western Sahara have the largest amounts, China the second largest, and Algeria the third largest. In contrast, US reserves have fallen to 1% of previous levels, while the UK has always relied on imports. “Traditional rock phosphate reserves are relatively rare and have been depleted in the process of being extracted for fertilizer production,” added Johnes.

This growing strain on stockpiles has raised fears that the world will reach “peak phosphorus” in a few years. Supplies will then dwindle, and many nations will struggle to get enough to feed their populations.

The prospect worries many analysts, who fear a few cartels could soon control most of the world’s supplies and leave the West extremely vulnerable to rising prices. The result would be the phosphate equivalent of the 1970s oil crisis.

The science fiction author Isaac Asimov once summed up the predicament: “Life can reproduce until all the phosphorus is gone, and then there is an unstoppable standstill that nothing can stop.”

These dangers were also highlighted with last week’s US release The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and an Unbalanced World, by environmental writer Dan Egan. The book has yet to be published in the UK but reflects concerns recently expressed by British scientists.

They say that we have become wasteful in consuming phosphates that we apply to our fields. Manure washed from them – and discharges of phosphorus-rich sewage – have led to widespread water pollution and created harmful algal blooms. Some of the world’s largest freshwater bodies are now affected, including Lake Baikal in Russia, Lake Victoria in Africa, and Lake Erie in North America. Blossoms in Erie have been poisoning local drinking water in recent years.

“Just like on land, phosphates help aquatic plants grow,” says Haygarth, co-author of Phosphorus: past and future. “And now it’s having catastrophic consequences in rivers, lakes and seas.” Many of these bloom-choked waters have become dead zones, where few living things survive and which are expanding. In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, a dead zone now forms every summer.

Such crises also create other environmental problems. “Climate change means we will get more algal blooms per unit of phosphate pollution due to warmer conditions,” said Prof Bryan Spears of the UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology in Midlothian.

Related: Phosphate fertilizer ‘crisis’ threatens world food supply

“The problem is that when this alga dies, it can break down to produce methane. So an increase in blooms means more methane is being pumped into the atmosphere — and methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere. It’s a cause for real concern.” Spears led a team that also included Haygarth and Johnes that recently authored a report, Our Phosphorus Future, in which they outlined the actions needed to deliver our upcoming to avert crisis. This includes improving ways to recycle phosphorus and ensuring a global shift towards healthy eating with a low phosphorus footprint.

The element’s global distribution shows how profoundly humankind is now shaping the makeup of our planet, Johnes added. “In one case, we’re digging up old coal, oil and gas deposits and burning them, pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing climate change.

“With phosphorus, we also mine mineral deposits, but in this case we turn them into fertilizer that gets washed into rivers and seas, where it triggers algal blooms. In either case, these major translocations are causing planetary devastation.”

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