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  • Writer's pictureHydroPhos Team

How Will Phosphorus Use Shift in the Future?

Why do we need Phosphorus? 

Because all life depends on it. Phosphorus is essential for the cellular energy processes making it paramount for all living things. As a key component in the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), phosphorus is integral to the energy transfer mechanisms that drive critical processes in plant cells. This includes photosynthesis, where ATP powers the conversion of sunlight into chemical energy, enabling plants to synthesize the carbohydrates necessary for growth. In agriculture, phosphorus-rich fertilizers play a vital role in enhancing crop productivity by fortifying the soil with this essential nutrient, ensuring robust plant development, root formation, and overall resilience against environmental stressors. Essentially, our global security depends on phosphorous. 

Phosphorous is in our DNA and in our food’s DNA. It is a central component of nucleic acids found in plant DNA and RNA, contributing to the genetic material that governs plant development and reproduction. The genetic information encoded in the DNA of crops is pivotal for traits such as yield, resistance to diseases, and adaptation to varying environmental conditions. As such, phosphorus becomes an indispensable element in fostering agricultural sustainability and ensuring global food security. 


Phosphorus, primarily introduced into the soil through organic materials such as manure, crop residues, and organic fertilizers, becomes assimilated by plants during their growth. As crops are harvested and processed into food products, the phosphorus from these plants is transferred into the human food chain. Upon consumption, humans absorb and utilize phosphorus for essential physiological functions, such as energy transfer and DNA synthesis. 


The effective recycling of phosphorus occurs as these human waste products, rich in phosphorus, can be treated and processed into fertilizers or returned to agricultural fields as organic amendments. This ideal closed-loop system emphasizes the importance of sustainable phosphorus management, promoting a circular economy that minimizes waste while ensuring a continuous and efficient flow of this critical nutrient from the farm to the human population and back to the soil.


Unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world where 100% of the phosphorus is brought back to the farms to be reused. Instead, phosphorus ends up in areas where it is unused and is considered “‘lost’ when it is dissipated to the point at which it is unlikely ever to be economically recoverable”. A common avenue of loss is through water bodies, where runoff from agricultural fields or wastewater can transport phosphorus into rivers, lakes, and ultimately, the sea. This process is exacerbated by factors such as soil erosion, improper fertilizer application, and inadequate nutrient management practices.


How will the world cope with depleting Phosphorus?


Where are global phosphorus deposits and how much do we have left? 

There are some competing views on how much phosphorus the world has left. Based on known supplies of phosphorus, scientific models predict phosphorus demand beating phosphorus supply in an alarmingly short timeline. One paper predicts that “In a business-as-usual scenario, global P requirement will overtake global P supply after 2040. In a very optimistic scenario where fast deployment enables full P recycling from wastewater and additional mining facilities, global P requirement overtakes global P supply after 2045.” This research is limited due to the lack of accurate and available information on phosphorus supply and demand. Unlike some other resources which are traded on public commodity markets, phosphorus trade is done through private contracts. Even if there is more phosphorous than our known stores, phosphorus is a nonrenewable resource that is depleting rapidly, threating global food security.


The Bleak Future of Phosphorus

The discussion on global phosphorus sustainability has shifted quite greatly over the years to a broader discussion about the phosphorus cycle as opposed to previous concerns being limited to phosphate rock mining. . Advancements in technology are fostering new methods for phosphorus recovery from various waste streams, including wastewater and agricultural byproducts. These innovations aim to reduce reliance on traditional phosphate rock mining, addressing concerns about resource depletion and environmental impacts. The adoption of circular economy principles may lead to increased phosphorus recycling, altering the dynamics of trade as nations seek sustainable and domestically-sourced alternatives. 


Conclusion

The projected global population surge to 9 billion by 2050 has profound implications for the demand on food production, placing unprecedented pressure on essential agricultural inputs such as phosphorus. As developing nations undergo agricultural intensification to meet the escalating demand for food, the necessity of phosphorus as a crucial component in fertilizers becomes increasingly apparent. These regions often experience a transition from traditional subsistence farming to more intensive agricultural practices, driving the demand for phosphorus-rich fertilizers to enhance soil fertility and crop yields. As a result, the agricultural sector becomes a focal point for phosphorus consumption, and the challenge arises to balance the need for increased food production with the sustainable management of phosphorus resources. Nations are compelled to explore diverse strategies, ranging from investing in phosphorus recycling technologies to fostering sustainable agricultural practices, to secure their phosphorus supply in the face of burgeoning demand. This complex interplay of factors underscores the urgency for international cooperation and innovative solutions to navigate the evolving landscape of phosphorus trade and ensure global food security in the coming decades.


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