Phosphorus vulnerability needs policy rethink
Vulnerability to phosphorus shortages should be the key indicator for decision-makers analysing phosphorus dependency, say researchers at the University of Linkoping in Sweden. Researchers Tina-Simone Neset and Dana Cordell have put forward a framework for qualitatively analysing global vulnerability to the anticipated future shortage of phosphorus.
“The question has so far been discussed mostly from a geophysical perspective,” says Neset. “’How large are the physical resources and how long will they last?’ But the issue is much more complicated than that.”
The researchers’ paper, published in Global Environmental Change journal, offers a new integrated framework for assessing the vulnerability of national food systems to global phosphorus scarcity. The Phosphorus Vulnerability Assessment framework draws on developments in assessing climate and water vulnerability.
The framework identifies and integrates 26 phosphorus-related biophysical, technical, geopolitical, socio-economic and institutional factors that can lead to food system vulnerability. The theoretical framework allows analysis of context-specific food systems by examining impact due to exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity.
It ultimately provides guidance for food and agriculture policy-makers, phosphate producers and phosphorus end-users (primarily farmers and consumers) to take action to reduce their vulnerability to this new global challenge.
In 2008, global phosphorus prices rose by 800% revealing how dependent the global population is on phosphorus, an ingredient in artificial fertilisers, for its food supply. A few years later, Cornell coined the term ‘peak phosphorus’, analogous to ‘peak oil’.
The original article she wrote with Neset, The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought, became the most downloaded and cited article in the journal Global Environmental Change’s history.
The geographic concentration of phosphorus is extreme; six countries control more than 90% of the world’s resources: Morocco, China, Algeria, Syria, Jordan and South Africa. A number of large countries and regions, such as India, the EU and Brazil are almost completely dependent on imported phosphorus for their agriculture.
“We wanted to test the concept of vulnerability developed within resource and climate research, and in this field too. There are many factors besides the pure physical global supply that decide how vulnerable a population is in the face of a future shortage of phosphorus,” said Neset.
In the analysis framework the researchers are now proposing, there are 26 indicators that may be tested on different levels: global, regional, national or local. Examples of indicators are international trade regulations, energy prices, eating customs, population, dependence on imports, food security, owners and producers of phosphate ore, infrastructure (transport), soil fertility, and distribution of income.
The researchers propose that the analysis should first be carried out at the national level, where the decision-makers are in the best position to influence factors such as agricultural policy, the financial situation of the farmers, infrastructure and recycling. They say that while phosphate ores are a finite resource, phosphorus may be recycled in a loose form from the urine and faeces of humans and animals. By making better use of this waste, it would be possible to reduce dependence on imported phosphorus and also reduce the impact on the environment that arises when phosphorus in sewage and slurry washes out into lakes and oceans, and contributes to eutrophication.
“The decision-makers need to become aware of and adopt a stance towards these issues,” said Neset. “How dependent are we on imported phosphorus? What should we do if prices were to rise sharply? Would it be possible to reduce this dependency in some way?”
How long the global reserves of phosphate ores will last is a hot topic of debate. A few years ago the figure for known reserves of phosphate ore was scaled up from 16,000 to 67,000 megatons. Neset said the estimates are uncertain and even in the most optimistic prognoses, the phosphate ores will have run out within a couple of hundred years.
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