Scientists warn that the planet is facing “phosphogeddon”. Scientists fear that our misuse of phosphorus may lead to severe shortages in fertilisers, which could disrupt global food production.
The same time, the phosphate fertiliser washed out of fields – along with sewage inputs to rivers, lakes, and seas-is giving rise to widespread algae blooms, and creating aquatic death zones which threaten fish stocks.
Researchers have warned that overuse of the element can increase methane emissions across the globe, causing global warming and the climate crisis resulting from carbon emissions.
Professor Phil Haygarth, Lancaster University, said that “We have reached an important turning point.” We might be able turn back, but we must pull ourselves together and become a lot more intelligent about how we use phosphorus. We face a catastrophe that we call ‘phosphogeddon’ if we don’t.
Hennig Brandt, a German scientist, discovered phosphate in 1669. He isolated it from urine and has since been proven essential for life. Calcium phosphate is a compound that has been derived from it. It also makes up the majority of bones and teeth. The element also supplies DNA with its sugar-phosphate backbone.
Professor Penny Johnes from Bristol University stated, “To put it simple, there is no existence on Earth without phosphorus.”
Its use in crop growth is what makes this element so important. Around 50m tonnes of phosphate fertilizer are sold annually around the globe. These supplies play an important role in providing food for the 8 billion people on the planet.
Only a handful of countries have significant phosphorus deposits: Morocco and western Sahara are the biggest, followed by China and Algeria. The US has a 1% decline in its reserves, while Britain must rely on imports. Johnes added that traditional rock phosphate resources are very rare and have been depleted due to fertiliser production.
The world is at “peak phosphorus”, according to growing fears. Many countries will be left without enough food and water, as supplies fall.
Analysts are concerned that the possibility of a few cartels controlling most of the world’s oil supplies could lead to high prices and make the west extremely vulnerable. This would result in the phosphate equivalent to the oil crises of the 1970s.
Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer, once summarized the predicament as follows: “Life can grow until all the phosphorus has gone. Then there is an inexorable stop which nothing can stop.”
These dangers were also highlighted last Wednesday with the US publication of The Devil’s Element : Phosphorus & a World Out of Balance,by Dan Egan, an environment writer. Although the book is not yet published in the UK, it mirrors recent concerns raised by British scientists.
It is said that we are now a wasteful user of the phosphates we use on our fields. Large-scale contamination of water has been caused by fertilizer washed away from them and the discharges of phosphorus rich effluent. The problem has now affected some of the largest freshwater bodies in the world, including Lake Baikal in Russia, Lake Victoria in Africa, and Lake Erie in North America. In recent years, poisoning has occurred due to Erie’s blooms.
Haygarth is co-author of phosphates: Past and Future. “And this is now having calamitous results in rivers, lakes, and seas.” Many of these bodies have become dead zones due to blooms. Very few animals survive, and the number of them are increasing. For example, one dead zone forms every summer in the Gulf of Mexico.
These crises can also cause other environmental problems. “Climate Change means that we will see more algal blooms per unit phosphate pollution due to the warmer conditions,” stated Prof Bryan Spears, of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
The problem is that methane can be produced from algae that has died. A rise in methane production will result in more methane being pumped into the atmosphere. Methane is 80x more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. It is a matter of concern.” Haygarth and Johnes led a team that wrote the report, Our Phosphorus Tomorrow. This document outlines the steps needed to avoid a crisis. These include ways to recycle more phosphorus, and to promote a shift towards healthy diets with low levels of phosphorus.
Johnes said that the global spread of the element shows how deeply humanity is shaping the planet’s makeup. “In one instance, we find ancient carbon deposits in coal, oil, and gas and burn them, which releases billions of tonnes carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, triggering climate changes.
“With phosphorus we are also mining mineral resources, but in this instance we are turning them to fertiliser that is washed into rivers or seas and triggering algal blooms. These grand translocations have been causing havoc on the planet in both instances.