Fertilizer shortage and price concerns create golden opportunity for smarter phosphorus use
15 Mar 2023 --- As the war in Ukraine continues to limit the free flow of agricultural fertilizers, which primarily come from Ukraine and Russia, efforts to use fertilizer more conservatively are ramping up. Stakeholders across the agri-food sector are increasingly aware that a critical ingredient for fertilizer, phosphorus, has potentially devastating environmental side effects.
The abuse of phosphate fertilizers, which the earth can’t absorb, leads to excess going through sewage into water masses. This creates algal blooms that threaten fish habitats.
Moreover, when algae die they decay producing methane. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNCE), methane’s global warming potential is 28 to 34 times the one of CO2 in the first 100 years.
Raising prices for fertilizers and environmental concerns should drive a movement toward phosphates recycling, Professor Phil Haygarth of Lancaster University, UK, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“At the moment, the global phosphorus cycle is inefficient with either a significant proportion leaking to water or going to landfill waste. This needs to be addressed as a high proportion of phosphorus has the potential to be recycled and reused.”
“There is considerable opportunity for innovative entrepreneurs here to help us recycle phosphorus more efficiently,” he notes.
“We need to stop it leaking water and keep it on the farm.”
Phosphorus shortage on the horizon?
Haygarth underscores that phosphorus “is extremely beneficial in helping crop and food production.” As a consequence, there is growing concern about the exhaustion of global phosphorus mines.
“Estimates on the longevity of phosphorus reserves are uncertain and varied. Some predictions have reserves being exhausted in a few decades. More recently, this has been extended to hundreds of years,” he explains.
“It could well be that other yet untapped sources are available and thus the peak could be much longer than this, and that we continue to push back the peak as we find new sources. But this does not mean that we should not seek more sustainable ways of working with phosphorus,” Haygarth continues.
The problem with phosphorus availability is not in the global reserves but on where those are found. The largest reserves are found in Morocco, China and Algeria, with most western countries seeing depleted deposits.
“Only four countries control around 70% of the annual global production of phosphate rock from which phosphorus is extracted, leaving the market exposed to massive fluctuations in costs and supply due to political disputes, trade wars and escalating fuel price,” according to Our Phosphorus Future report by Haygarth and professors Louise Heathwaite and Paul Withers.
“Since 2020, the prices of both phosphate rock and fertilizers have increased by around 400% and continue to rise. This instability exacerbates the impacts of other global factors influencing fertilizer costs, such as the effect of the war in Ukraine on the cost of natural gas,” the report highlights.
Although specific exemptions in the sanctions regime permitted Russia and Belarus to continue to supply fertilizers, exports have fallen foul of other measures designed to isolate the region.
Excessive dependence on a few players makes phosphorus recycling more attractive. At the same time, solutions such as using biostimulants that allow lower fertilizer use are also alluring.
Enough phosphorus for all
The report calls on governments across the world to adopt a “50, 50, 50” goal, which includes reducing global phosphorus pollution by 50% and a 50% increase in recycling the nutrient, all by 2050.
To achieve the goal, the authors recommend integrating livestock and crop production so phosphorus in animal manure is applied to all crops, which will reduce the demand for chemical fertilizers. They also advocate a shift toward sustainable diets, such as plant-based eating, as well as activities to reduce global food waste and improve wastewater treatment.
If the 50,50,50 objective is reached, it is anticipated to allow a food system with enough phosphorus to sustain “over four times” the current global population, save farmers US$20 billion per year in fertilizer costs and save money on cleaning up polluted water courses.
“The cost of responding to water-based phosphorus pollution in the UK alone is estimated at £170 million (US$206.83 million) per year,” underscores the report.
However, countries will still have to continue to pay for the removal of some phosphorus from waters, even if they make a better use of the nutrient.
“It is only less than 100 years (and the Earth age is 4.5 billion years) since we started increasing our use of rock phosphate globally, and we already see effects in rivers, lakes and at the ocean margins. If we were able to ‘turn off the tap today,’ it would be decades and perhaps longer until the legacy worked its way through the system,” concludes Haygarth.
By Marc Cervera
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