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Phosphorus: Approaching Fundamental Limits?

Phosphorus: Approaching Fundamental Limits?

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Published by Zé Miguel

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Published by: Zé Miguel on Aug 02, 2011
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Phosphorus, like reshwater, is essential or
lie and has no substitutes. All living organ-
isms require phosphorus to carry genetic
inormation and process energy. Phosphorus
is a key constituent o bones. Phosphorusis also an important pollutant o reshwa-
ter. Phosphorus is the principal driver o 
algae blooms that cause toxicity, oxygen
loss, sh kills and other problems in lakes,
reservoirs, and rivers. All o the phosphorus
that acts as a water pollutant comes romagriculture. Most o the phosphorus pollu-tion comes directly in erosion and runof rom agricultural elds. Some o the phos-
phorus pollution comes rom human waste
that is untreated or insufciently treated,
and o course this phosphorus derives rom
ood produced by agriculture. Yet, phos-phorus or ertilising croplands is lackingin some parts o the world. According to
some analyses, humanity is approaching
“peak phosphorus”, the time when globalreserves o mineable phosphorus begin todecline. How has a limiting actor or liebecome a serious pollutant?
Phosphorus enters the biosphere whenrocks become soil. Natural weathering o 
rocks adds only a small amount o phospho-
rus to the biosphere each year. Mining orphosphorus used in ertilisers accounts orthe vast majority o phosphorus added to
the biosphere each year. Mining phosphorus
is relatively new in geologic history; almost
all o the phosphorus mining has occurred
since about 1950. Five countries– China,
Morocco, South Arica, Jordan and the
United States – produce about 90 per cento the world’s mined phosphorus.
Mined phosphorus is added to soil to
stimulate crop growth. Currently, a bit more
than a third o global crop production is edto livestock. Manure is rich in soluble orms
o phosphorus that are readily transportedin water. Tus runof o phosphorus romertiliser and manure has become a majorpollutant o reshwater in phosphorus-richparts o the world.Te maximum amount o mined phos-
phorus that can be applied to earth’s soils
 without triggering toxic algae blooms is
known as the planetary boundary or phos-
phorus. Global phosphorus application rates
ar exceed the planetary boundary, indicating
that phosphorus pollution is a problem o 
global concern.
 Although the world applies too much
phosphorus on average, phosphorus appli-
cation varies widely rom place to place.In North America and Western Europe,
applications o ertiliser and manure have
substantially enriched soils with phosphorus
and thereby caused massive pollution prob-
lems. Arica is rich in mineable phosphorusreserves, but more than 95 per cent o thephosphorus mined in Arica is exported to
other countries. Arica’s soils have the lowest
ertiliser application rates in the world, and
most Arican soils are phosphorus-defcient.
Earth’s supply o mined phosphorus is
running out, even as demand or phosphorus
grows at around three per year. Existing
mines are degrading, as miners are orced to
dig deeper and extract phosphorus-bearing
rock o lower quality. Some studies indicate
that “Peak Phosphorus”, the time when sup-
plies cannot meet demand, is only a ew 
decades away. Other studies argue that the
peak is past, while still others say it is centu-
ries away. While projections are debatable,it is certain that phosphorus is an exhaust-ible resource with no substitutes. Shortages will occur.
Ironically, phosphorus is a dwindling
resource that is a major pollutant. Roughly 
80 per cent o mined phosphorus is never
consumed as ood by humans. Instead it is wasted and thereby causes massive damageto reshwaters.
Conservation is an obvious solution to
 waste o phosphorus. Phosphorus can be con-
served on the arm, in ood distribution and
consumption, and in treatment o human
 waste. On the arm, phosphorus applica-
tions should match crop needs, and erosion
o phosphorus-rich soil should be minimised.
 Animal production is a major driver o excessphosphorus application, when manure is ap-
plied to soil as a waste product. reatment
technologies that ex-
tract phosphorus romanimal waste in useul
orms can decrease this
loss. Liestyle changes
that decrease meatconsumption also decrease phosphorus
 waste. Finally, human waste contains a great
deal o phosphorus that can be recycled oruse as ertiliser.Phosphorus, like reshwater, is a non-substitutable resource that is in short sup-ply. Wasted phosphorus becomes a major
pollutant o reshwaters associated withtoxic blooms o algae, oxygen depletion,
fsh kills, disease outbreaks and other seri-
ous problems. By recognising that phos-phorus is a rare and dwindling resource
that should be careully conserved, we win
in two ways: we maintain the supply o a
critical mineral ertiliser, and we maintain
clean reshwater.
 Approaching Fundamental Limits? 
“...humanity is approaching  peak phosphorus” 
Pfess Stephen r. capente f theUnivesity f Wisnsin-Madisn, the2011 Sthlm Wate Pie Laueate.
   J  e   f   f   M   i   l   l  e  r ,   U  n   i  v  e  r  s   i   t  y   W   i  s  c  o  n  s   i  n  -   M  a   d   i  s  o  n
Professor Stephen R. Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison wasnamed the 2011 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate for his outstanding researchon lakes. In this exclusive editorial, he presents an argument for phosphorusmanagement.

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