The management of the key ingredient at the base of all foods
The management of the key ingredient at the base of all foods.
UK scientists are calling for urgent measures to manage phosphorus, an essential element for food production.
Phosphorus is a fundamental element of our food system: plants cannot grow without it and it has no substitute. UK agricultural and livestock production depends almost entirely on imported phosphorus in feed and fertilizers – the UK imports around 174,000 tonnes of phosphorus annually. Much of these imports come from phosphate rocks from countries such as Russia, Morocco, and China. The price of phosphate fertilizers has quadrupled between mid-2020 and mid-2022 due to supply disruptions and market concentration in China. The ongoing war in Ukraine is highlighting the food security risks associated with import dependency.
As prices of phosphate fertilizers remain at very high levels after soaring this year, scientists are calling for urgent measures to manage phosphorus, an essential element for food production but which is also at the root of environmental pollution in our rivers and lakes. With the launch of the UK’s first comprehensive national transformation strategy on phosphorus, researchers say they will provide a roadmap for better management of this important resource. The strategy underlines the urgent need for new solutions and scaling up existing innovations to prevent future damage to biodiversity and aquatic habitat, reduce dependence on risky import markets and unlock new opportunities for agriculture.
The “ UK Phosphorus Transformation Strategy ” – one of the main outcomes of the RePhoKUs project, led by the University of Lancaster and involving the University of Technology Sydney, the University of Leeds and funded under the on UK Global Food Security – sets out the challenges and key steps needed for the UK to adopt resilient, efficient and sustainable management of phosphorus. Professor Paul Withers, from Lancaster University and principal investigator of the RePhoKUs project, said: ‘The UK currently lacks a coherent plan for the management of phosphorus in the food system, either nationally or regionally. nor within watersheds. This situation needs to change urgently.” Where livestock farming is more intensive, predominantly in the West of England and Northern Ireland, phosphorus surpluses (especially in manure) are higher. In areas where fields are cultivated, there are production deficits and the need to use phosphorus-based fertilizers, because the crops absorb more than is applied.
The strategy’s recommendations highlight a number of priorities to help move towards a more sustainable use of phosphorus:
- Develop and scale up new technologies and innovations that can recover phosphorus from animal manure, wastewater and food waste and redistribute it as viable, affordable and renewable fertilizers;
- Provide incentives that encourage investment in technologies and reduce barriers to create new markets for the renewable phosphorus-based fertilizer industry;
- Improve , align and make coherent policies and governance that recognize and manage phosphorus as a polluting resource;
- Provide knowledge, research and tailor-made advice to farmers for the exploitation of soil phosphorus and for the use of recycled phosphorus;
- Better engage stakeholders, across the entire phosphorus value chain, to set strategic direction and support implementation through tailored and diverse local solutions;
Establishing a stakeholder platform for sharing nutrient data in the UK to help inform phosphorus management.
“Theoretically there is enough phosphorus circulating in the food system and in our soils. One of the pathways to achieving sustainable phosphorus use will involve the development and deployment of new technologies that extract left-over phosphorus from soils and manures and develop new markets for renewable fertilizers,” says Brent Jacobs, one of the lead authors of the report.
- UK Phosphorus Transformation Strategy: Towards a circular UK food system (zenodo.org)