Our planet is facing ‘phosphogedon’, scientists have warned. They fear that our misuse of phosphorus will lead to a deadly fertilizer shortage that will disrupt global food production.
At the same time, phosphate fertilizers extracted from fields, as well as sewage flowing into rivers, lakes and seas, are causing widespread algal blooms and creating aquatic dead zones that threaten fish stocks.
In addition, excessive use of the element increases methane emissions across the planet, adding to global warming and the climate crisis caused by carbon emissions, the researchers warned.
“We have reached a critical turning pointsaid Professor Phil Haygarth of Lancaster University. “We may be able to go back, but we really need to pull ourselves together and be a lot smarter about how we use phosphorus. If we don’t, we face a calamity that we have called “phosphogedon.”‘”.
Origin of phosphorus
Phosphorus was discovered in 1669 by German scientist Hennig Brandt, who isolated it from urine and has since been shown to be essential for life. Bones and teeth are largely made of the mineral calcium phosphate, a compound derived from it, while the element also provides DNA with its sugar phosphate backbone.
“Simply put, there is no life on Earth without phosphorus.explained Professor Penny Johnes of the University of Bristol.
The global significance of the element lies in its use to promote the growth of crops. Around 50 million tonnes of phosphate fertilizers are sold globally each year, and these supplies play a crucial role in feeding the world’s 8 billion people.
However, significant phosphorus deposits are only found in a few countries: Morocco and Western Sahara have the most, China the second and Algeria the third. In contrast, stocks in the United States fell to 1% from previous levels, while Britain still had to rely on imports. “Traditional phosphate rock reserves are relatively scarce and have been depleted due to extraction for fertilizer production.John added.
This growing pressure on stocks raises fears that the world will reach “peak phosphorus” in a few years. Then the supplies will dwindle, leaving many nations struggling to get enough to feed their people.
That prospect worries many analysts, who fear that a few cartels will soon control most global supplies and leave the West highly vulnerable to soaring prices. The result would be the phosphate equivalent of the 1970s oil crisis.
The situation was once summed up by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov:Life can multiply until all the phosphorus is exhausted, then there is an inexorable stop that nothing can prevent.”.
These dangers were also highlighted last week with the publication in the United States of 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 raised by UK scientists.
large scale water pollution
They say that we have become wasters in the use of the phosphates that we put in our fields. Leached fertilizers and phosphorus-rich effluent discharges have led to large-scale water pollution and harmful algal blooms. Some of the largest freshwater bodies in the world are now affected, including Lake Baikal in Russia, Lake Victoria in Africa and Lake Erie in North America. Blooms in Erie have poisoned local drinking water in recent years.
“Just like on land, phosphates promote the growth of aquatic plants.said Haygarth, co-author of Phosphorus: past and future. “And this is now having catastrophic consequences in rivers, lakes and seas.”. Smothered by the bloom, many of these bodies of water have become dead zones, where few creatures survive and which are spreading. A dead zone now forms in the Gulf of Mexico every summer, for example.
Such crises also create other environmental problems. “Climate change means we will have more algal blooms per unit of phosphate pollution due to warmer conditionssaid Professor Bryan Spears of the UK Midlothian Center for Ecology and Hydrology.
Emission of phosphorus and methane
“The problem is that when these algae die, they can decompose and produce methane. So an increase in blooms will mean that more methane will be pumped into the atmosphere, and methane is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere. It’s a real cause for concern”. Spears led a team, including Haygarth and Johnes, who authored a recent report, Our Phosphorus Future, outlining the steps needed to avert our impending crisis. These include improving ways to recycle phosphorus and ensuring that there is a global shift towards healthy diets with a low phosphorus footprint.
The element’s global spread reveals how much humanity is now shaping the makeup of our planet, Johnes added. “In one case, we dug up ancient carbon deposits of coal, oil and gas, burned them and thereby released billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, triggering climate change.
“Along with phosphorus, we also extract mineral reserves, but in this case we turn them into fertilizers that flow into rivers and seas where they cause algal blooms. Either way, these great translocations wreak planetary havoc.”.