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The fate of phosphorus (Editorial)

by | Oct 16, 2020

An international research team investigated which continents and regions worldwide are suffering the greatest loss of phosphorus.
The researchers combined high-resolution spatially discrete global data on the phosphorus content of soils with local erosion rates. Based on this, they calculated how much phosphorus is lost through erosion in different countries.
An important conclusion of the study is that more than 50 percent of global phosphorus loss in agriculture is attributable to soil erosion.
“That erosion plays a role was already known. The extent of that role has never before been quantified with this level of spatial resolution,” said lead researcher Christine Alewell.
Along with that finding, the research raises persistent issues with the global phosphorus supply and who will have control over that supply as it becomes more in demand by developing countries.
Depending on the model and projection, the Earth has between 50 and 2,000 years before its phosphate reserves are depleted, a wide enough window to make farmers shrug and move on to something more pressing.
New large phosphate deposits were recently discovered in the Western Sahara and Morrocco and the fertilizer industry points to numerous unexplored areas that could yield more to the global supply.
Even if supply ends up matching the longer estimates, access could be an issue in the future.
Some 75 percent of the world’s phosphate supply is controlled by five countries.
Three of those five — the United States, Russia and China — don’t always get along the greatest, to put it mildly.
As global food production needs to increase to feed its growing population, if nation states perceive a threat in getting phosphate and its fertilizer derivatives, so-called nutrient security could become a larger part of national security.
Agriculture in the Mid-Atlantic could be well situated to buffer the impact should situation become dire.
Widespread and long-term use of no-till planting and cover crops has curbed soil erosion and saved phosphorus and nitrogen from leaving farm fields.
As precision agriculture practices expand for both commercial fertilizer and animal manure, as wells as crop genetic improvements, farmers will continue to get more efficient, growing more crops with less inputs.
Where farms cycled nutrients within its own system decades ago, it has now expanded to a more regional scale, trucking livestock manure and poultry litter from one farm to another where it can build the soil profile.
Whether it’s a doomsday scenario some analysts point to or business as usual, the nutrients essential for crop production, whether they are in a bag, chicken house or already in the soil, have value and should be treated that way.


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