Endangered species? Should cheap phosphorus be first on an elemental 'Red List?'

Oct 14, 2011

Should the periodic table bear a warning label in the 21st century or be revised with a lesson about elemental supply and demand? If so, that lesson could start with one element considered a staple of life – but growing endangered, like the Asiatic dhole – phosphorus.

Why is pivotal? Phosphorus is in the DNA of all plants and animals. It is a key ingredient in fertilizer, but high quality phosphate deposits for mining are limited in both quantity and locality. Indeed, there are increasing concerns that with 85% of the resource limited to three countries in the world, inexpensive phosphorus may become a vestige of the past.

What could happen then? That's a question that scientists James Elser, a professor at Arizona State University, and Elizabeth Bennett, a researcher at McGill University in Canada, want to tackle sooner rather than later. In their commentary "The phosphorus cycle: a broken biogeochemical cycle" published in the Sept. 6 issue of Nature, the duo examine the lack of public and governmental discourse about the plight of the element phosphorus – and the potential social consequences of inaction.

Elser and Bennett in North America, and researchers Dana Cordell and Stuart White with Institute for Sustainable Futures in Australia, are just a few of the rising tide of scientific voices calling for early environmental attention and action. Awareness is a critical piece that needs to be addressed, along with better global accounting and technological innovation, the researchers say, to build pre-emptive, sustainable solutions for this broken biogeochemical cycle.

In the United States, for example, the strategic dimensions of a limited phosphorus supply are just beginning to be recognized and reported. On the other hand, Morocco, which possesses the largest phosphorus reserves in the world, is already planning for the inflow of millions of dollars – a white gold – that could result from global phosphorus shortfalls.

"Right now we have natural resources people, agricultural people, wastewater people, pollution people, and others largely working on their own. We could all be more effective if our efforts and knowledge were coordinated to develop best practices," Elser says.

"We also need to better ways to quantify the P resources and movements going on out there," he adds. "We should question the huge shifts in numbers that result from voluntary and proprietary reports, for example. More than that, simply identifying where and how much of the resource exists isn't enough. We need to examine the costs involved in extracting the element from different sources and advocate for policy measures that connect the P-supply issues to the P-pollution issues."

Elser points out that phosphorus is already out of reach for poor farmers in many countries, and, as history's economic lessons have shown, the costs of any monopolized resource can skyrocket. He is also concerned about the institutional vacuum regarding governance: "Who will establish regulations and incentive structures with regard to phosphorus use and waste given its impacts on food security?"

Besides a shortfall of information, improving phosphorus sustainability is complicated by factors like soil type, which can heavily influence how much phosphorus is needed in a particular area and how available the is to crops. And while tailoring crops by breeding and engineering can help improve phosphorus use in some situations, such complications mean there is no single solution.

There's a lot that needs to be done and half-measures won't work," says Elser. "What we need, and what we call for in our Nature piece, is a comprehensive network of nutrient sustainability research centers, connected closely to policy makers and farmers and the public."

Elser has pushed for public and institutional awareness in the United States since first reading early research that suggested that phosphorus would follow the path of peak oil in his lifetime. In response, Elser co-founded the ASU Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative in 2010, with ASU collaborators Mark Edwards, a professor with ASU's W.P. Carey School of Business and Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness, Dan Childers, an associate director of the Global Institute of Sustainability, and doctoral student Jessica Corman.

The ASU collaborative developed a Sustainable Phosphorus Summit in 2011 that brought together more than 100 researchers, engineers, teachers, students and entrepreneurs to discuss how to recycle, reclaim, reuse and more sustainably manage this limited resource, with support from the National Science Foundation and others. Two book projects have emerged from the summit. To be published by Oxford Press, the first, "Phosphorus, Food, and Our Future," with ASU doctoral students Corman and Karl Wyant, seeks to engage natural and social scientists, policy analysts and regulators and professionals involved in agriculture, food production and sanitation. The second project is a trade book by Elser, titled "P is for People."

Elser is best known for his pioneering work on ecological phosphorus limitation and biological stoichiometry, a field that studies the relationships among carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in living systems, including topics a diverse as tumors, lakes subjected to air pollution, microbial evolution in hot spring, and, now, global agricultural systems.

Elser's work has taken him to Norway, Mexico, Argentina, China and Japan. In 2011, he's received a Fulbright to study Andean lakes and a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue his work in Cuatro Cienegas, Mexico, with Valeria Souza, a microbial evolutionary ecologist with National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). As with his work and interest in phosphorus sustainability, public awareness is central to this project. Their collaboration will include the development of a high tech, bilingual planetarium to help get young students from the United States and Mexico excited about microorganisms and their roles and function in the Earth's systems, with support from Deirdre Meldrum, a professor with the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and director of the Center for Biosignatures Discovery Automation in ASU's Biodesign Institute, and Janet Siefert, a statistician with Rice University.

"Humans control the global phosphorus cycle, more than carbon, more than nitrogen," says Elser. "Looking at how we're doing with P, I'd have to say: this is no way to run a biogeochemical cycle. We need to clean up our lakes, our oceans and our act!"

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More information: www.nature.com/nature/journal/… 67/full/478029a.html

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User comments : 12

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bewertow
3.9 / 5 (7) Oct 14, 2011
The problem is there are too many people in the world to feed
210
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 14, 2011
The problem is there are too many people in the world to feed

There are areas of the world where over-population has become a problem. This article speaks of a resource required by all living beings...people, are just a tiny fraction of that big picture. Having 'too many' people is, when we look at our inherent mind power, it is a problem that bears its own solution. We CAN manage ourselves in a more conscientious way, we can manage our world in a more productive manner. We have not mastered our oceans, our deserts, our poles, we have a huge gap between what we use and what we recycle. Someday, we will colonize space but for now, we must colonize new ways of thinking. Most countries on earth are 'developing' nations and resist so much talk of reducing their use of fossil fuels 4 example. But, if they did this now, they would have the economies of tomorrow FIRST!
It won't be easy, but we can do this and KEEP all our people, our real gold/phosphorus.
word-to-ya-muthas
mattytheory
2.3 / 5 (4) Oct 14, 2011
So then the answer is to kill all of the animals and plants so us people can have all the resources, right? Well... I think we're on pace to do just that anyways so everyone make sure to continue leaving your lights on when you're not home and buying everything but only if it is wrapped in several layers of plastic...
SemiNerd
1 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2011
In lots of areas leaving your lights on when your not at home is the best way to keep living (or at least keep your stuff). Good luck on changing THAT behavior.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (6) Oct 14, 2011
Despite the fact that I once wrote an online article in which I declared P essential to life for the purpose of the maintenance of our bones for example etc., I wonder now whether I was so totally wrong so as to be on the extreme end of the other side of that fence upon which we otherwise vaccilate. I don't like to be indecisive.

As I recall from my readings, the gods lived for many thousands and even several hundreds of thousands of years. I reason that that is because they spent millions of years travelling through space to end up somewhere else to start something else again. Phosporous is measurably radioactive, and radioactivity implicates decay, which can be analogous to aging.

If Phosphorous is essential to life then we are seriously in need of some attention, given that when P runs out then we are all even more quickly slowly doomed to extinction. I think maybe not.

On the other hand, maybe the gods intended it to be that way. Just maybe we were made only to mine gold.
Silverhill
5 / 5 (3) Oct 14, 2011
Phosporous is measurably radioactive, and radioactivity implicates decay, which can be analogous to aging.
Radioactivity might be comparable to aging, but phosphorus is not radioactive -- not all of its isotopes, that is. P-31, for example (the isotope that is most commonly encountered in nature), is stable.
Jotaf
3 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2011
Our manufacturing processes all work in an open loop: resources go in, garbage comes out. It's gonna take a whole lot of work to connect the output to the input so we get a viable closed loop for... basically, everything we do!

A bit scary, but I don't think our scientists and engineers are scared by the task. Only our politicians and industry managers are!
omatumr
1.5 / 5 (8) Oct 15, 2011
The problem is there are too many people in the world to feed


Really?

What solutions are you proposing?

Pirouette
not rated yet Oct 15, 2011
Well, since Phosphorus is in our bones and in the bones of other mammals and also fish, birds, etc., wouldn't it be prudent to take the bones of animals and our dead to factories that would grind up the bones to recycle as mineral supplements, agricultural amendments and other important products that would benefit mankind, animals and plants. After all, this is about preserving life as we know it and cleaning up the environment. Of course, it would be strictly on a voluntary basis for humans to donate their bones after they die. They wouldn't feel the process anyway, but you know how some people are. Resources on this planet are finite, so we had better get a move on and continue our manned space program to Mars instead of being so concerned about our welfare programs that seems to encourage overpopulation. It takes Phosphorus and many other minerals to sustain overpopulation, which gets even bigger and consumes more.
jamesrm
3.5 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2011
"Really?
What solutions are you proposing?"

You have to remember how much he loves children

http://mominer.ms...hildren/
210
1 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2011
"You have to remember how much he loves children

http://mominer.ms...hildren/"

Indeed, indeed...we are informed, we get your drift....oh, and we see what you have posted...okay.

NOW,

" "Really?
What solutions are you proposing?" "

Now...I ask.....'What solutions are you proposing?"

word-

rubberman
not rated yet Oct 20, 2011
So, the green iniative, as in the conservation of energy via the swapping of all incandescent light sources for fluorscent ones (which use phosphors to generate color)is bad?
Ehn, they didn't make many of those anyways.....