Scientists are warning of a looming “phosphogeddon” caused by our misuse of phosphorus, which could lead to deadly shortages of fertilizers that would disrupt global food production. Phosphate fertilizer washed from fields is giving rise to widespread algal blooms and creating aquatic dead zones that threaten fish stocks, while overuse of the element is increasing releases of methane and contributing to the climate crisis.
Phosphorus is essential for crop growth, and about 50 million metric tons of phosphate fertilizer are sold around the world every year, playing a crucial role in feeding the planet’s 8 billion inhabitants. However, significant deposits of phosphorus are found in only a few countries, and reserves in the US are down to 1% of previous levels. This growing strain on stocks has raised fears the world will reach “peak phosphorus” in a few years, leaving many nations struggling to obtain enough to feed their people.
In addition to shortages, the misuse of phosphorus is also causing environmental damage. Phosphate fertilizer washed from fields, along with sewage inputs into rivers, lakes, and seas, is giving rise to widespread algal blooms and creating aquatic dead zones that threaten fish stocks. Overuse of the element is also increasing releases of methane, contributing to the climate crisis caused by carbon emissions.
The element’s global importance cannot be underestimated, but significant deposits of phosphorus are found in only a few countries. Morocco and Western Sahara have the largest amount, China the second-biggest deposit, and Algeria the third. In contrast, the United Kingdom has always had to rely on imports. “Traditional rock phosphate reserves are relatively rare and have become depleted in line with their extraction for fertilizer production,” said Johnes.
The misuse of phosphorus could lead to devastating consequences, with deadly shortages of fertilizers disrupting global food production. This looming “phosphogeddon” is also causing environmental damage, with widespread algal blooms and aquatic dead zones threatening fish stocks. The overuse of the element is increasing releases of methane and contributing to the climate crisis caused by carbon emissions.
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