Phosphorus scarcity threatens lean times in food production

In summary: 
  • The 3rd Sustainable Phosphorus Summit at UTS next week is the first event of its kind in Australia to specifically address issues of phosphorus scarcity and food security
  • A looming peak in phosphorus production for fertiliser has serious implications for the world's ability to feed itself as population increases

Among the world's hotly debated environmental and resource security issues, a looming peak in phosphorus production for fertiliser has gone relatively unnoticed according to the organisers of an international summit in Sydney next week.

The 3rd Sustainable Phosphorus Summit is the first event of its kind in Australia specifically addressing issues of phosphorus scarcity and food security. It is being held at UTS over three days from Wednesday 29 February.

Bringing together a diverse group of international and local industry, policy, scientific and food security specialists, the summit is building on the fledgling interest in long-term phosphorus security, sparked by the 800 per cent price spike of phosphate commodities in 2008.

Dana Cordell and Stuart White, picture courtesy the Banksia Environmental FoundaDana Cordell and Stuart White, picture courtesy the Banksia Environmental Foundation

"It is expected that global supplies of concentrated high-grade phosphate rock may run out in the next 100 years under current usage patterns," said Professor Stuart White, Director of the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), which is hosting the summit. "Of the major plant nutrients, phosphorus appears to be the one with some potential for shortfalls in supplies to generate significant price increases, particularly as reserves occur in a relatively small number of countries, notably China and Morocco.

"This has serious implications for the world's ability to feed itself as population increases – the human body needs phosphorus to function, which it gets from food. Much of what we eat, in turn, comes from the phosphorus in soils that enables crops to grow.

"Yet the public remains largely unaware of the potential threat, underscored by a lack of political action on the issue across the globe.

"Phosphorus sustainability is a 'wicked' problem, but it is not a rarefied one. We need to learn from other resource areas and address things in a cost-effective way. Food affects everyone – there is strong economic and social advantage to create a 'soft landing'."

One notable voice in the push to bring attention to the phosphorus story is Professor Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his pivotal work on ozone depletion. A keynote interview at the summit, Professor Crutzen has commented, "There is an urgent need to take action now to ensure we will have sufficient phosphorus to feed humanity into the future."

ISF researcher and co-founder of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, Dr Dana Cordell, said the push for action would be taken up in Australia by a National Strategic Phosphorus Advisory Group to be established at the summit.

The high-level group is being established to examine and advance the cause of sustainable phosphorus in Australia. Members include noted nutritionist Rosemary Stanton and representatives from the CSIRO, the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Fertiliser Industry Federation of Australia, Geoscience Australia and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, among others.

"There is a strategic window of opportunity to develop a partnership from this summit to advance understanding of this global dilemma and promote sustainable solutions," Dr Cordell said.

"It is expected the summit will deliver the Blueprint for Global Phosphorus Security, a landmark document which will form the basis for further research and policy action in Australia and across the world to secure phosphorus supplies," she said.

The 3rd Sustainable Phosphorus Summit is being held from 29 February to 2 March in the Aerial Function Centre, level 7, UTS Building 10, 235 Jones Street, Ultimo.

For more on the summit program and speakers visit:

I am glad that UTS has brought this burning issue to limelight. Generally people are unaware of such issue as this doesn’t impact them directly, until if you are a farmer, agriculture commodity broker or a agriculture research scientist. Shortage of phosphorus not only will impact the production in near future, but has already started to affect the micro economy of the farm and farmers. A large number of farmer’s suicides around the world have been blamed on the increased cost of production especially due to shortage of phosphate fertiliser and as mentioned in your article 800% increase. Research community has now a hugh responsibility to fight this challenge and bring some new alternatives.

Surely this is a compelling reason to mine phosphorus back out of our sewage. Apart from that, what's the alternative - will we need to mine the ocean floors?

I believe the use of leftover food or leaves for composting as an alternative to mining for phosphorous could contribute significantly to sustainability. Transforming someone else' waste into something usable is already an accomplishment in its own right but beyond that, it also eliminates our dependence on mining for phosphorous elsewhere.

As stated in the article I read, "The leaves of one large shade tree can be worth as much as $50 of plant food and humus. Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure. For example, the mineral content of a sugar maple leaf is over five percent, while even common pine needles have 2.5 percent of their weight in calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus, plus other trace elements. Since most trees are deep-rooted, they absorb minerals from deep in the soil and a good portion of these minerals go into the leaves." -

Peak Phosphorus is a long term problem, but it is one that does merit some attinteon.While one is tempted to look at farming practices for the solution, perhaps it is more appropriate to look at human populations centers. One way or another, all ag production ends up filling human needs. To me, that situation equates to a whole lot of phosphorus ending up in cities and not being recycled to the natural environment.