Commentary: Phosphorus phobia?

decrease font size  Resize text   increase font size       Printer-friendly version of this article Printer-friendly version of this article

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.”

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.


Buyers Guide

Doyle Equipment Manufacturing Co.
Doyle Equipment Manufacturing prides themselves as being “The King of the Rotary’s” with their Direct Drive Rotary Blend Systems. With numerous setup possibilities and sizes, ranging from a  more...
A.J. Sackett Sons & Company
Sackett Blend Towers feature the H.I.M, High Intensity Mixer, the next generation of blending and coating technology which supports Precision Fertilizer Blending®. Its unique design allows  more...
R&R Manufacturing Inc.
The R&R Minuteman Blend System is the original proven performer. Fast, precise blending with a compact foot print. Significantly lower horsepower requirement. Low inload height with large  more...
Junge Control Inc.
Junge Control Inc. creates state-of-the-art product blending and measuring solutions that allow you to totally maximize operating efficiency with amazing accuracy and repeatability, superior  more...
Yargus Manufacturing
The flagship blending system for the Layco product line is the fully automated Layco DW System™. The advanced technology of the Layco DW (Declining Weight) system results in a blending  more...
Yargus Manufacturing
The LAYCOTE™ Automated Coating System provides a new level of coating accuracy for a stand-alone coating system or for coating (impregnating) in an automated blending system. The unique  more...
John Deere
The DN345 Drawn Dry Spreader can carry more than 12 tons of fertilizer and 17.5 tons of lime. Designed to operate at field speeds up to 20 MPH with full loads and the G4 spreader uniformly  more...
Force Unlimited
The Pro-Force is a multi-purpose spreader with a wider apron and steeper sides. Our Pro-Force has the most aggressive 30” spinner on the market, and is capable of spreading higher rates of  more...
BBI Spreaders
MagnaSpread 2 & MagnaSpread 3 — With BBI’s patented multi-bin technology, these spreaders operate multiple hoppers guided by independent, variable-rate technology. These models are built on  more...


Comments (0) Leave a comment 

Name
e-Mail (required)
Location

Comment:

characters left


LAYCOTE™ Automated Coating System

The New LAYCOTE™ Automated Coating System provides coating accuracy for stand-alone coating systems and for coatings (impregnating) in automated blending ... Read More

View all Products in this segment

View All Buyers Guides

Feedback Form
Feedback Form