Phosphorous was an accidental discovery made back in 1669, by alchemist Hennig Brandt on his search for the ‘philosopher’s stone,’ a mythical alchemical substance that was thought able to transform base metals into gold or silver. It was believed that the stone could be used to create an ‘elixir of life,’ granting the drinker immortality.1
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While not quite the elixir of life Brandt was searching for, phosphorous fertilizer is essential for life on earth and for global food security, with 50 million t sold globally each year. However, scientists have recently expressed growing levels of concern surrounding the misuse of phosphorous fertilizers, and have warned of significant shortages and a looming crisis dubbed ‘phosphogeddon’.2 The extensive use of phosphorous fertilizers is also causing environmental concern. A rise in algal blooms has been noted as a consequence of phosphorous deposits in streams, lakes, and seas, occurring after fertilizer is washed from fields. The blooms have the potential to be harmful to humans, and form ‘dead zones’ in bodies of water, threatening fish supplies and contaminating the habitats of marine creatures; it has been reported that one dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico each summer.2 Equally concerning is the methane emitted when algae decays, which will increase as a result of the blooms and contribute further to the climate crisis. Furthermore, traditional reserves of phosphate rock are limited, and steadily depleting; the US is reportedly down to 1% of previous levels. It is also estimated that ‘peak phosphorous’ will be reached within the next few years, and with the majority of reserves already concentrated in Morocco and Western Sahara, and a number of countries relying on imports, we could begin to see nations struggling to feed their populations.
Evidently, our focus must begin to shift towards using fertilizers in a smarter way. A report from ‘Our Phosphorous Future’ (OPF) identifies how this can become a reality, and outlines pathways towards proper phosphate management.3 One of these pathways is to reduce our reliance on mined phosphate rock, and attempt to move towards a circular phosphorous economy, by recycling and recovering the element from wastes and residues, resulting in high purity phosphorous products. Improving nutrient efficiency is also crucial. As the uptake of phosphorous is largely unpredictable, the overuse of phosphorous fertilizers and overestimates of required quantities can be a common issue. The OPF report however reiterates that crop management measures and soil fertility management can be utilised to help improve phosphorous uptake in soil, and minimise overuse of the element.
Of course, phosphorous fertilizers are not the only area of concern for the industry. Despite their significance in aiding crop production, nitrogen fertilizers have been seen to cause environmental hazards such as water and soil acidification, groundwater surface pollution, and accelerated ozone depletion, but these effects can be mitigated through proper management and handling solutions.4 However we go about it, the message is clear: protect essential reserves and minimise environmental costs, whilst maintaining food security. This is not an easy task by any means, but if the fertilizer industry can take the next steps towards a more sustainable future, we may not be doomed to a crisis like ‘phosphogeddon’ after all.
- ROBERTS, T. L., ‘Phosphorus: Past History and Contributions to the Global Food Supply’ (2019), www.ipni.net/publication/bettercrops.nsf/0/60B96CA325BF6CE5852583B7004D75A3/$FILE/BC-2019-1%20p6.pdf, (Accessed 31.03.23).
- MCKIE, R., The Guardian, ‘Scientists warn of ‘phosphogeddon’ as critical fertiliser shortages loom’ (2023), www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/12/scientists-warn-of-phosphogeddon-fertiliser-shortages-loom, (Accessed 31.03.23).
- BROWNLIE, W. J., SUTTON, M.A., HEAL, K.V., REAY, D.S., SPEARS B.M., (eds.), ‘Our Phosphorus Future’ (2022), https://static1.squarespace.com/static/60ab7d2902207048adc8c540/t/62fa5a370393cf7604a50879/1660574297780/2022_The+OPF+Report_images+compressed.pdf, (Accessed 31.03.23).
- BASHIR, M.T., et al. ‘Impact of excessive nitrogen fertilizers on the environment and associated mitigation strategies’ (2013), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/246964631_IMPACT_OF_EXCESSIVE_NITROGEN_FERTILIZERS_ON_THE_ENVIRONMENT_AND_ASSOCIATED_MITIGATION_STRATEGIES, (Accessed 31.03.23).