The story of phosphorus began with the search for the philosopher’s stone, and centuries later the critical role of phosphorus in soil fertility and crop growth was highlighted. Eventually, phosphorus was implicated in the global environmental challenge of eutrophication. Now, we are on the brink of yet another emerging chapter in the story: global phosphorus scarcity linked to food security. Through a transdisciplinary and systemic inquiry, this thesis has analyzed, reconceptualized and synthesized the physical and institutional dimensions of global phosphorus scarcity in the context of food security, leading to a new framing, ‘phosphorus security’ to guide future work towards a more sustainable and food secure pathway.
In a world which will be home to nine billion people by the middle of this century, producing enough food and other vital resources is likely to be a substantial challenge for humanity. Phosphorus, together with nitrogen and potassium, is an essential plant nutrient. It is applied to agricultural soils in fertilizers to maintain high crop yields. Phosphorus has no substitute in food production. Therefore, securing the long-term availability and accessibility of phosphorus is crucial to global food security. However the major source of phosphorus today, phosphate rock, is a non-renewable resource and high quality reserves are becoming increasingly scarce. This thesis estimates peak phosphorus to occur before 2035, after which demand will exceed supply. Phosphorus scarcity is defined by more than just physical scarcity of phosphate rock and this thesis develops five important dimensions. For example, there is a scarcity of management of phosphorus throughout the entire food production and consumption system: the global phosphorus flows analysis found that only 20% of phosphorus in phosphate rock mined for food production actually reaches the food consumed by the global population due to substantial inefficiencies and losses from mine to field to fork. There is also an economic scarcity, where for example, while all the world’s farmers need access to sufficient fertilizers, only those with sufficient purchasing power can access fertilizer markets. Institutional scarcity, such as the lack of governance structures at the international level that explicitly aim to ensure long-term availability of and access to global phosphorus resources for food production that has led to ineffective and fragmented governance of phosphorus, including a lack of: overall coordination, monitoring and feedback, clear roles and responsibilities, long-term planning and equitable distribution. Finally, geopolitical scarcity arising from 90% of the world’s remaining high-grade phosphate rock reserves being controlled by just five countries (a majority of which are subject to geopolitical tensions) can limit the availability of phosphorus on the market and raises serious ethical questions.
The long-term future scenarios presented in this thesis indicate that meeting future global food demand will likely require a substantial reduction in the global demand for phosphorus through not only improved efficient use of phosphorus in agriculture, but also through changing diets and increasing efficiency in the food chain. The unavoidable demand for phosphorus could then be met through a high recovery and reuse rate of all sources of phosphorus (crop residues, food waste, manure, excreta) and other sources including some phosphate rock. A ‘hard-landing’ situation could involve further fertilizer price spikes, increased waste and pollution (including eutrophication), increased energy consumption associated with the production and trade of phosphorus fertilizers, reduced farmer access to phosphorus, reduced global crop yields and increased food insecurity. A preferred ‘soft landing’ situation will however require substantial changes to physical and institutional infrastructure, including improved governance structures at the global, national and other levels, such as new policies, partnerships and roles to bring together the food, fertilizer, agriculture, sanitation and waste sectors for a coordinated response.
Finally, this thesis proposes a new global goal – phosphorus security – to be integrated in the dominant research discourses and policy debates on global food security and global environmental change. Among other criteria, phosphorus security requires that phosphorus use is decoupled from environmental degradation and that farmers’ access to phosphorus is secured.