Commentary: Phosphorus phobia?
To be sure, extracting phosphates from deposits around the world has helped fuel a major increase in global food production. Phosphate production in 2012 was 220 million tons, up from 165 million tons in 1994.
But is phosphorus availability really a serious concern? Not according to the Alabama-based International Fertilizer Development Center, an organization dedicated to improving food security, agricultural productivity and economic development through farm efficiency.
I have a lot of respect for IFDC, an organization that gets involved with controversial issues but maintains its focus on initiatives that move the needle. For example: Its priorities include projects to reduce food waste, improve access to modern farming technologies and fertilizer, expand sustainable energy production and improve market access for farm products grown in developing countries.
As for phosphorus, Steven Van Kauwenbergh, the principal scientist and leader of IFDC’s Phosphate Research and Resources Initiative, stated that, “Phosphorus is pretty far down the list of things we’re going to suddenly run out of.”
A 2010 IFDC report titled, “World Phosphate Rock Reserves and Resources,” projected that even with current rates of production, phosphate rock reserves should last another 300 to 400 years.
Van Kauwenbergh also noted that IFDC’s approach to improving farm productivity, particularly in areas where improper management or monoculture cropping has depleted the soil, includes a combination of organic soil amendments and use of inorganic fertilizers to rebuild fertility. It’s not just about adding nitrogen (derived principally from natural gas) or phosphorus; soil fertility also depends on a proper balance of organic matter to promote water retention and root development.
Metson, however, argued that the growth of phosphate usage worldwide is unsustainable, noting in her letter that, “[The] global per capita phosphorus footprint has increased 38% over the last 50 years.”
In making the point that meat-eating corresponds with phosphorus use, she noted that Luxembourg—considered the world’s heaviest meat-eating country—consumes 16.8 pounds of phosphorus per person, while The Congo’s per capita use is less than one pound a year. (Interestingly, though, Canada—certainly a country that’s hardly adverse to meat eating—has seen its per capita use of phosphorus actually decrease since the 1960s.)
So while it’s difficult to make conclusive judgments about phosphorus and meat production, it seems safe to say that the world will face critical shortages of oil—a far greater concern for agriculture—much sooner than any imaginable phosphorus crisis.
Phosphorus is something to think about, but nothing to lose sleep over.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.