Interview: The problems with phosphorus

In a new commentary (subscription required) in Nature Geoscience, IIASA researchers Michael Obersteiner, Marijn van der Velde,  and colleagues write about the problems facing the world’s food supply as we exhaust our supplies of phosphorus. Projections show that phosphorus supplies could run out in the next 40 to 400 years.  In this interview, Obersteiner and van der Velde give more background on the “phosphorus trilemma.”

field of wheat

Fertilizers containing phosphorus are vital for crop production – but phosphorus is limited in availability and growing scarcer.

Why is phosphorus so important?

MV:  Phosphorus is essential for life on Earth. It is a key component of DNA and cell membranes, and vital for cellular energy processes. Crops need phosphorus to grow. And to maintain crop production, and to make sure that soils remain productive, we have to add extra nitrogen and phosphorus as fertilizer. This is one of the food security issues in Africa where soils are suffering from nutrient depletion without replenishment.

Where do we get phosphorus and why is that supply in danger?

MO: Phosphorus is ubiquitous in the Earth’s crust. However, most of it is strongly bound in the soil , where plants cannot access it. Modern agriculture (which made human population explode) essentially began when we found ways to extract nitrogen from the air and phosphorus from minerals to make fertilizers for agricultural purposes.

The problem is that minable phosphorus is geographically concentrated in very few places. For example 75% of known reserves are located in Morocco and these reserves are limited. If, for example, political turmoil restricted access to the mines of Morocco, we would be in danger of short-term shortages that could lead to rising food prices or food insecurity in poor countries.

What problems do you expect as phosphorus becomes even more limited?

MO: The biggest problem we face is limited or no access to phosphorus fertilizers by the poor and food insecure.

MV: At the same time, rich countries apply excess fertilizers causing eutrophication to their lakes and rivers, while the poor cannot afford fertilizers.

What can be done about these problems?

MV: More efficient fertilizer application would make fertilizers cheaper to poor farmers, and at the same time help address the environmental problems. But in the long run we need to figure out how to produce food in a way that recycles nutrients at minimum loss rates.  (This also includes losses from human excrement!)

To better solve the issues around long-term phosphorus availability and equitable use we also need better data on how much phosphate rock is remaining in the world and where it is located. Countries will need to be persuaded to collaborate on both these issues to ensure equity.

How does IIASA research inform this debate?

MV:  In a paper we published earlier this year in PLOS ONE we showed the importance of soil phosphorus and the significant increases in yields that could be achieved in Africa with balanced micro-dosed applications of nitrogen and phosphorus. Available phosphorus in soils is generally low, especially in older weathered soils in the tropics where a lot of the phosphorus can be locked up in iron and aluminum complexes. We are currently investigating what application rates of nitrogen and phosphorus would be optimal for a range of soils and climates. This can then lead to better soil and nutrient management.

MO: In addition researchers in the Mitigation of Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases program have been very active in finding solutions to the problem. For example:—Wilfried-Winiwarter-on-Reality-.en.html

What should people to know about this issue?

MO: Many things in nature that we like or depend on for our livelihood are substitutable. But phosphorus is in everything we eat and cannot be substituted by any element. If we continue business as usual we will squander this resource and thereby potentially compromising the wellbeing of our daughters and sons.

Further Reading

M. Obersteiner, J. Peñuelas, P. Ciais, M. van der Velde, and I.A. Janssens, 2013The phosphorus trilemma. Nature Geoscience, 6, 897-898, doi:10.1038/ngeo1990 [COMMENTARY].

M. van der Velde, L. See, L. You, J. Balkovič, S. Fritz, N. Khabarov, M. Obersteiner and S. Wood, 2013.Affordable nutrient solutions for improved food security as evidenced by crop trials. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60075. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060075 [OPEN ACCESS].


Marijn van der Velde is a Research Scholar with IIASA’s Ecosystems Services and Management (ESM) Program

Michael Obersteiner at IIASA conference 2012

Michael Obersteiner is the leader of IIASA’s Ecosystems Services and Management (ESM) Program.

IIASA and the private sector

By Björn Stigson

There is both a need for and an interest in cooperation between science and the global business community. There are many options that we can consider on how IIASA can interact more with the private sector, creating a special business advisory panel or via cooperation agreements with companies or the World Business Council.

Bjorn Stigson at the IIASA Conference 2012

IIASA advisor Björn Stigson calls for cooperation between science and business.

In October 2012, I participated in IIASA’s 40th Anniversary Conference. We discussed the need for new partnerships between the science community, academia, business, and governments. If science and business communities stand together, then policymakers will be forced to listen.

The science community has developed a lot of knowledge, and can put this knowledge to better use in global policymaking. Part of this will be in cooperation with the business community.

The business community is way ahead of governments in terms of understanding challenges such as climate change and the environment. We are also way ahead of governments in taking action. But what we struggle with is understanding the nexus issues and systems analysis, which IIASA specializes in. How do we deal with the nexus between energy,  food, water, land use, and similar issues? These are the areas where we need more engagement between business and the scientific community—and IIASA can provide that key focal point. But the cooperation between science, business, and governments has to overcome some challenges.

One major issue is the disconnect in the time frames that different sectors focus on. Scientists work with a long time frame, and so do businesses—investing for up to 50 years into the future. However the financial community is very short-term oriented and often focuses on the next quarter or year at most. The political system works with the syndrome “my term in office,” which normally is three to four years. This is a major disconnect when looking at long-term investments for sustainability.

Another challenge is that the scientific community often does not see business knowledge as real knowledge because it is not published and reviewed in the same way. If we can improve communication between science and business, we can join hands and go to the politicians together to say this is what is really needed and we will have a much bigger impact than we have today.

Global business has come to engage in policy issues because we depend on them. If scientists really want to influence policy then they cannot sit on the sidelines, but should be suggesting possible solutions. Both science and business must do a better job of explaining to the politicians what the solutions are—not only the problems. I am looking forward to working closely with IIASA to see how we can address many of these issues as a partnership between science and the private sector.

This article first appeared in IIASA’s Options Magazine, Summer 2013.

Björn Stigson: On 27 November 2012, Björn Stigson was named special advisor to IIASA Director and Chief Executive Officer Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat to advise on how collaboration with the business world can increase the impact of IIASA research on policy. Björn Stigson is the Chairman of Stigson and Partners AB; former President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD); and IIASA private sector advisor.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.