We need phosphorus to fertilize crops and feed the world—can we mine it sustainably?

px phosphate mine panorama
Phosphate is mined to produce crop fertilizer. Image: Jason Parker-Burlingham - Flickr

If you wanted to really mess with the world’s food production, a good place to start would be in Morocco. They don’t grow much here, but it is home to mines containing most of the world’s known reserves of phosphate rock, the main source of the nutrient phosphorus. Most of us across the globe, most days, will eat some food grown on fields fertilized by phosphate rock from these mines.

Phosphorus is an essential mineral to grow food, but research suggests that this is being mined unsustainably. If reserves run low, food production will be constrained and starvation entirely possible.

Now, David Vaccari, an environmental engineer at Stevens Institute of Technology, and colleagues have developed a model to describe how phosphorus flows through the global food system. The model, reported in the Sept. 4 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, can predict how several different conservation approaches could reduce demand for a nonrenewable resource that is absolutely vital for feeding the world.

“Phosphate is spread across the planet but hardly recycled,” said Vaccari, a pioneer in phosphate research who led the work. “The model allows us to answer specific ‘what if’ questions to see how certain changes in human behavior could significantly improve the conservation of this resource and by extension, help sustain the world’s food production.”

Related article:  Why local food production doesn't prevent shortages in a pandemic

In the past, the phosphorus cycle was practically closed: crops were eaten by humans and livestock while their feces were used as natural fertilizers to grow crops again. These days, the cycle is broken. Each year phosphate rocks are mined and turned into fertilizer. This is converted into crops which are transported to cities for food. Some phosphorus is lost at every step along the way and winds up in the environment. Runoff from farms goes into waterways, food waste goes to landfills, and the human waste goes to the sewage disposal, most of which ultimately ends up in the sea. A cycle has become a linear process.

Vaccari and colleagues model this cycle, with “knobs” that can be turned up or down to create different conservation scenarios. When a knob is turned — e.g. fraction of animal meat in diet, fraction of food that is wasted, fraction of human waste recycled — the model, which factors in leaks and losses from the food system, loops back to calculate the degree to which phosphate mining could be reduced.

Read full, original article: Not all meat is created equal: How diet changes can sustain world’s food production

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