Peak phosphorus

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Graph showing world phosphate rock production, 1900–2012, reported by US Geological Survey

Peak phosphorus is a concept to describe the point in time at which the maximum global phosphorus production rate is reached. Phosphorus is a scarce finite resource on earth and means of production other than mining are unavailable because of its non-gaseous environmental cycle.[1] According to some researchers, Earth's phosphorus reserves are expected to be completely depleted in 50–100 years and peak phosphorus to be reached in approximately 2030.[2][3] Whereas in stark contrast the International Fertilizer Development Center in a 2010 report estimates that global phosphate rock resources will last for several hundred years.[4] The predominant source of phosphorus comes in the form of phosphate rock and in the past guano.

The term "peak phosphorus" is used in an equivalent manner to the better known term peak oil which was popularized by Colin Campbell and Kjell Aleklett in 2002.[5] In his publications on the Hubbert peak theory, Hubbert used the term "peak production rate" and "peak in the rate of discoveries".

The peak phosphorus concept is in line with the concept of planetary boundaries. Phosphorus, as part of biogeochemical processes, belongs to one of the nine Earth system processes which are known to have boundaries that, to the extent that they are not crossed, mark the safe zone for the planet.[6]

Estimates of world phosphate reserves[edit]

The accurate determination of peak phosphorus is dependent on knowing the total world's phosphate reserves and the future demand for rock phosphate. Although many estimates for when peak phosphorus will occur have been made, many of them are marred by inaccurate knowledge of the quantity of world phosphate reserves. This is largely in part due to distrust in phosphate mines' reports of total reserves, with the expectation that these values will be inflated to protect their business interests. In 2012, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that phosphorus reserves worldwide are 71 billion tons, while world mining production in 2011 was 0.19 billion tons.[7] These reserve figures, although widely used for predicting future peak phosphorus, have raised concern as to their accuracy due to the fact that they aren't independently verified by the USGS.[8]

Reserves refer to the amount assumed recoverable at current market prices. Phosphorus comprises 0.1% by mass of the average rock[9] (while, for perspective, its typical concentration in vegetation is 0.03% to 0.2%),[10] and consequently there are quadrillions of tons of phosphorus in Earth's 3 * 1019 ton crust,[11] albeit at predominantly lower concentration than the deposits counted as reserves from being inventoried and cheaper to extract.

The depletion of phosphorus is very relevant to the world's food production issues. Phosphorus is a major component in fertilizer, without which fertilizer will be rendered useless. Without fertilizer, two thirds of the world's population will starve because the Earth cannot support our demands for food.[12] There are no alternatives to phosphorus and no synthetic ways of creating it. According to one source[citation needed], without new sources for high quality mineable phosphorus agriculture will face major problems within the next 50–100 years. According to the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) phosphate reserves will last 75 to 200 years[13] Therefore, exploring alternative forms of agriculture, where nutrient conservation is key, is almost certainly of vital importance.

According to the GPRI, eight to fifteen million tons of phosphorus are lost to the sea every year through run-off.[14]

Exhaustion of guano reserves[edit]

In 1609 Garcilaso de la Vega wrote the book Comentarios Reales in which he described many of the agricultural practices of the Incas prior to the arrival of the Spaniards and introduced the use of guano as a fertilizer. As Garcilaso described, the Incas near the coast harvested guano.[15] In the early 1800s Alexander von Humboldt introduced guano as a source of agricultural fertilizer to Europe after having discovered it on islands off the coast of South America. It has been reported that, at the time of its discovery, the guano on some islands was over 30 meters deep.[16] The guano had previously been used by the Moche people as a source of fertilizer by mining it and transporting it back to Peru by boat. International commerce in guano didn't start until after 1840.[17] By the start of the 20th century guano had been nearly completely depleted and was eventually overtaken with the discovery of superphosphate.

Phosphorus conservation and recycling[edit]


A huge amount of phosphorus is transferred from the soil in one location to another as food is transported across the world, taking the phosphorus it contains with it. Once consumed by humans, it can end up in the local environment (in the case of open defecation which is still wide-spread on a global scale) or in rivers or the ocean via sewage systems and sewage treatment plants in the case of cities connected to sewer systems. An example of one such crop in South America that takes up large amounts of phosphorus is soy. At the end of its journey, the phosphorus often ends up in rivers in Europe and the USA.[18]

In an effort to postpone the onset of peak phosphorus several methods of reducing and reusing phosphorus are in practice, such as in agriculture and in sanitation systems. The Soil Association, the UK organic agriculture certification and pressure group, issued a report in 2010 "A Rock and a Hard Place" encouraging more recycling of phosphorus.[19] One potential solution to the shortage of phosphorus is greater recycling of human and animal wastes back into the environment.[20]

Agricultural practices[edit]

Reducing agricultural runoff and soil erosion can slow the frequency with which farmers have to reapply phosphorus to their fields. Agricultural methods such as no-till farming, terracing, contour tilling, and the use of windbreaks have been shown to reduce the rate of phosphorus depletion from farmland. These methods are still dependent on a periodic application of phosphate rock to the soil and as such methods to recycle the lost phosphorus have also been proposed. Perennial vegetation, such as grassland or forest is much more efficient in its use of phosphate than arable land. Strips of grassland and or forest between arable land and rivers can greatly reduce losses of phosphate and other nutrients.[21]

Integrated farming systems which use animal sources to supply phosphorus for crops do exist at smaller scales, and application of the system to a larger scale is a potential alternative for supplying the nutrient, although it would require significant changes to the widely adopted modern crop fertilizing methods.

Excreta reuse[edit]

Main article: Excreta reuse

The oldest method of recycling phosphorus is through the reuse of animal manure and human excreta in agriculture. Via this method, phosphorus in the foods consumed are excreted, and the animal or human excreta are subsequently collected and re-applied to the fields. Although this method has maintained civilizations for centuries the current system of manure management is not logistically geared towards application to crop fields on a large scale. At present, manure application could not meet the phosphorus needs of large scale agriculture. Despite that, it is still an efficient method of recycling used phosphorus and returning it to the soil.

Sewage sludge[edit]

Sewage treatment plants that have an enhanced biological phosphorus removal step produce a sewage sludge that is rich in phosphorus. Various processes have been developed to extract phosphorus from sewage sludge directly, from the ash after incineration of the sewage sludge or from other products of sewage sludge treatment. This includes the extraction of phosphorus rich materials such as struvite from waste processing plants.[22] The struvite can be made by adding magnesium to the waste. Some companies such as NuReSys are already using this technique to recover phosphate.

Research on phosphorus recovery methods from sewage sludge has been carried out in Sweden and Germany since around 2003, but the technologies currently under development are not yet cost effective, given the current price of phosphorus on the world market.[23][24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Neset & Cordell 2011, p. 2
  2. ^ Cordell, Drangert & White 2009, p. 292
  3. ^ Lewis 2008, p. 1
  4. ^ - IFDC Report Indicates Adequate Phosphorus Resources, Sep-2010
  5. ^ Wakeford, Jeremy. "Peak oil is no myth". Engineering News. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  6. ^ Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. & 26 others (2009) Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32.
  7. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Phosphate Rock
  8. ^ Gilbert 2009, pp. 716–717
  9. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Phosphorus Soil Samples
  10. ^ Abundance of Elements
  11. ^ American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2007, abstract #V33A-1161. Mass and Composition of the Continental Crust
  12. ^ Pollan 2006
  13. ^ EOS magazine 9/2012
  14. ^ EOS magazine 9/2012
  15. ^ Leigh 2004, pp. 78–79
  16. ^ Skaggs 1995, p. 4
  17. ^ Skaggs 1995, p. 5
  18. ^ EOS magazine, May 2013
  19. ^ - A rock and a hard place, Peak phosphorus and the threat to our food security, 2010
  20. ^ Burns 2010
  21. ^ udawatta 2011
  22. ^ Gilbert 2009, p. 716
  23. ^ Sartorius, C., von Horn, J., Tettenborn, F. (2011). Phosphorus recovery from wastewater – state-of-the-art and future potential. Conference presentation at Nutrient Recovery and Management Conference organised by International Water Association (IWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF) in Florida, USA
  24. ^ Hultman, B., Levlin, E., Plaza, E., Stark, K. (2003). Phosphorus Recovery from Sludge in Sweden - Possibilities to meet proposed goals in an efficient, sustainable and economical way.


Further reading[edit]