Commentary: Phosphorus phobia?
Geneviève Metson is a doctoral student at Montreal’s McGill University who is studying an interesting offshoot of agricultural sustainability: Phosphorus.
That’s right. Phosphorus. Not exactly top of mind when it comes to potential crises in food production.
However, as Metson’s research statement explains, “Phosphorus is a scarce resource essential to food production, but in too large quantities can also cause pollution in water bodies. More sustainable phosphorus management is essential for food security and pollution abatement.”
No argument here.
For the most part, phosphorus is considered a non-renewable resource, since its principal commercial source in modern times is apatite, phosphate-containing rock (in previous centuries, phosphorus was primarily obtained from animal bones or phosphorus-rich guano). Although significant deposits of apatite are found in Florida, Tennessee, Idaho and Utah, fully one-half of the world’s reserves of phosphorus are located in Arab nations.
That makes sustainable phosphorus management an important strategic priority and Metson’s research something more than an intriguing thesis topic.
But here’s the kicker: She’s focused on finding out how much of the phosphorus that’s mined for use as a nutritional additive in animal rations or for commercial fertilizer to grow feed crops ends up directed toward meat production.
That fits right in with the current fad of calculating the carbon footprint and the resource consumption required to produce a pound of beef, pork or chicken. Those charts provide a visual snapshot of the land area, water use and energy consumption—allegedly—needed to put a hamburger or a chicken breast on somebody’s dinner plate. (Here is an example of one such infograph, developed by Dr. Judith Capper, a dairy scientist who has done extensive research on sustainable livestock production: www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/06/27/155527365/visualizing-a-nation-of-meat-eaters)
It’s all about the footprint
Not surprisingly, Metson determined that meat production is one of the most prominent food sectors dependent on phosphorus. Thus, as she argued in a communication published in Environmental Research Letters, meat’s phosphorus footprint is reason enough to eat less of it, given that phosphorous is a finite resource.
“Changes we can make in our diet to decrease the demand for mined phosphorus can also decrease the use of other resources,” Metson told National Public Radio. “We need to manage our food system in an equitable and sustainable way.”