Phosphate Problem

Phosphate Problem

Phosphate is an essential resource in our human food supply, but we are running out of this vital mineral. Kevin Clift explains the current supply problem and the science projects seeking alternatives.

Originally shared by Kevin Clift

Peak Phosphate?

Phosphorous is one of those chemical elements that’s essential to life on Earth.  In its phosphate forms it is needed for DNA, RNA, ATP and cell membranes. As we grow plants for our food or animal fodder they take up the phosphorous they need from the soil and then we transport these plants all over the world where they are consumed by people and animals. When plants are eaten, the small proportion of phosphate needed for animal life is absorbed, and the rest is excreted.  Currently, this excreted essential element then flows into the local rivers from animals. From human animals, it flows through sewage systems into the local rivers and oceans.  Consequently the soil where the food is grown, which these days may be far away from where it is excreted, is being continuously stripped of phosphorous.  For us to grow food in the same field again and again, we have to industrially replace it in the form of phosphate based fertiliser.  

As our population keeps doubling so frequently we need more and more food and therefore more phosphates but there are limits to their availability.  Also, many countries, like those in Africa, have yet to adopt the industrial approach to food production. The world competition for phosphates is expected to increase as they do.  Only one county, Morocco, controls 80% of known phosphate bearing rock.  We have already consumed most of the phosphate from guano and before that much of the known phosphate bearing coprolites or fossilised dinosaur dung.

If you are interested in learning more about the potential phosphate problem, a problem that is leading to some of the deep sea extraction efforts, you might enjoy this radio programme from the BBC.

Tom Heap looks at whether we’re running out of phosphorus. It’s an essential element in fertiliser and all life on earth depends on it. Nowadays we get it from mining phosphate rock, which is a finite resource. Some scientists have predicted that we could run out within decades.

More here: http://goo.gl/Rp9HKP

(There is a stream, download (look for Tue, 18 Mar 14), and podcast available)

To learn more about our efforts to mine phosphorous (and more) from the deep sea continue here.

My name is Linwood Pendleton, I’m an economist. I have three things I want you to know about what’s happening in the deep sea. First of all we have already industrialised many parts of the deep sea. We have deep sea trawling for fish, we have oil and gas extraction, but we have cables and we have barrels of waste.

What’s happening now though is we are about to move into a different era, a new era of deep sea industrialisation. Keep in mind that all industrial activity in the deep sea has some environmental impact. Even oil and gas which seems to have a relatively small footprint has a relatively large at times impact on environmental conditions. For instance, the oil and gas platforms in British and Norwegian waters alone have produced 2 million cubic feet of drilling wastes. That’s enough to fill the Hyatt Regency up to the 20th floor. That waste sits on the floor of the deep sea, smothering the organisms there. It has toxins of course. Accidents in the deep sea will happen.

More here: http://goo.gl/AMYKRQ

(You can choose the transcript tab to continue reading, or you can listen to this segment or subscribe to the podcast.)

Image: http://goo.gl/433yuV

Join the Conversation

14 Comments


  1. William Ortman Radioactive phosphorous – the cure is worse than the problem!  Anything that has been in a reactor is bad news for a long while.  And we can’t do fusion just yet, sadly.

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  2. Gavin Shanley It would be far cheaper to reclaim it from sewage than get it off the moon.  There are a lot of social issues about using human waste as fertiliser, but it may come to that.  Treating to remove impurities, smell etc is  not the problem it once was.  We do, however, have to be careful what other stuff is in it, such as heavy metals and (medical) drugs.

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  3. But the effects on the environment would be horrific if we were to mine the ocean and our own waist won’t be enough in the near future. I do understand it will be expensive but worth it once the necessary technology for commercial space travel has been developed. Plus if we’re looking at over population then more apace and other materials will be needed eventually.

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  4. Gavin Shanley I agree that mining the ocean could have a very bad impact environmentally.  But since when did that stop corporations from doing things for their own benefit, in the guise of ‘for their customers’?  Just look at oil/coal/gas and the effect of CO2.  And acid rain.  They put up a huge disinformation smokescreen, lie through their teeth, make money ‘available’ and it gets political.  Similar thing happened with CFCs – Reagan said give people sunhats!  Leaded petrol?  Smoking causes cancer? 


    The only thing that stops them is strong government backed by people who don’t want their water ruined by fracking, their air by lead pollution or whatever.


    As a secondary comment, countries and governments will do whatever it takes to feed its people and the environment can go hang.  Nobody votes for starvation.

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  5. Gavin Shanley Good questions. Professor  Carle Pieters, a planetary scientist from Brown University, is still quoted as a source on this question, which she addressed in 2010. Pieters reports that there’s been minimal research done to evaluate the harnessing of minerals on the moon, so it seems we may be a long way off from mining it for phosphorus (http://goo.gl/GQCZ7q). 

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  6. Both Nick James and Gavin Shanley make good points. Turning human waste into phosphate is a lengthy process and currently expensive. David Vaccari from the Stevens Institute of Technology told Scientific American that only 10% of human excrement contains phosphate (http://goo.gl/cIQtLY). The Dep. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has produced a useful research and policy report that sees human waste coupled with struvite (a phosphate mineral) as a cost-effective way to recycle nutrients to crops. They note that other chemical and economic issues arise that require further long-term research (http://goo.gl/qlMWgw). Slough sewage plant in Berkshire, UK, is one example of how such a program is working successfully. They boast being able to save 20% on imported fertilisers recycling human waste (http://goo.gl/ln4gN6). 


    So human waste is important, but still only one piece of the phosphate puzzle. The majority of mined phosphate (80%) is used in animal farming and it is lost, as it cannot be reused to produce other consumable food. Yet other alternatives exist.


    Columbia University has listed several options (http://goo.gl/DqXmYb). For example, the phosphorus in urine can be used to produce 50 to 100% of the food for another person, by turning this waste into struvite crystals. Research is also exploring gene expression of rice, to help it grow in low phosphate environments and to grow bigger roots to absorb more of this mineral.  The “Enviropig,” a genetically modified species of Yorkshire pigs, have also been bred to efficiently digest phosphorus from plants and produce less phosphorus pollution. Finally, Minjingu deposits from Tanzania are rich in phosphate and a cheaper alternative. They are formed from the waste and dead birds in the mountains.


    CC Kevin Clift 

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