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Consider it an unforeseen consequence of our rapidly advancing ability to control the elements of our natural world – phosphorus, a key building block for life, is facing a shortage. Used as a key component in the production of fertilizer, it may not have the star power of other prized elements (such as gold, silver, or platinum) but considering how crucial it is in providing the world’s food supply, the ramifications of a global phosphorus shortage could be disastrous for life as we currently know it.

Prized by the agricultural industry for its ability to rapidly boost plant production – phosphorus is also an essential element in the creation of DNA, RNA and cell membranes. As our global population grows, the demand for phosphorus is also increasing. From biofuels to the meat industry, crops are being grown at a rate that is unsustainable in the not-very-long term. Without significant changes to current practices, our reserves could deplete within a century. And unlike other commodities (like oil), there is no replacement for phosphorus.

In the natural cycle, rain releases phosphorus from rocks into the soil where it enables plant production and enters the food chain, eventually emerging as waste. Prior to the creation of fertilizer, farmers used both animal and human waste to grow their crops, and phosphorus was replaced to the soil at roughly the same rate it was removed. Today, as the population grows and agricultural methods have adapted to meet this increased demand, phosphorus isn’t being returned to the soil. Instead it is leached from the earth through run-off and diverted into lakes, streams and eventually the ocean. (Additionally, phosphorus is released in human waste. In many developed countries, this waste is also diverted to bodies of water with a minimum of treatment.) Once there, phosphorus creates large blooms of cyanobacteria (blue algae) that starve fish and aquatic plant life of oxygen. These blooms result in ‘dead zones’, responsible for the decreased output of fisheries.

The Phosphorous Cycle

Our planet is a closed system – so while the phosphorus remains, it settles into marine sediments that we have no way of mining. It is, for all intents and purposes, lost to us. But we have the ability to slow – or potentially stop – this depletion. Adopting sustainable agriculture practices such as no-till farming will limit erosion, keeping more of the element in the soil. Additionally, recycling human, animal, and organic waste for use as fertilizers will decrease pressure on our limited supply. (Potentially, phosphorus could be extracted from urine – but due to the high levels of toxic metals found in our plumbing systems, the cost to do so is – as yet – too high to be attractive to industry.)

It sounds dire – and it is. But like most of the environmental problems we are facing today, there are methods to reverse the damage done. From technological advances in phosphorous mining, allowing us to access reserves that are currently unavailable, to improving waste recycling – it is only up to us to demand change. Or future generations will pay a high cost for our ignorance.