North-South Centre

North-South Forum

Phosphorus – A bottleneck of nature

Pollution, resource scarcity and its implications for food security

Tuesday, 12 April 2011, 9:00 – 12:30 h

ETH Zurich, Rämistrasse 101, Main Building, Semper Aula, HG G 60

Programme (PDF, 600 KB)


Related articles and media coverage:

Zurich, 11 April 2011 – ETH Life article about phosphorus as unsung bedrock of prosperity.
In German: »»
In English: »»

Phosphorus – the 11th most abundant element in the earth’s crust – has recently hit the headlines of newspapers and magazines and attracted the attention of researchers from diverse backgrounds. While for the general public it might still figure as “the most important element you’ve never heard of”, researchers are increasingly focusing on phosphorus (P) as bottleneck of nature for future food security. Compared to its natural flows, humans have roughly tripled global P-cycling through intense use of phosphate rock products, primarily as mineral fertiliser. In fact, the modern agricultural system uses about 90% of all mined phosphate rock and is hence fundamentally dependent on the commodity.

The Peak Phosphorus debate
Previously, phosphorus has been discussed as major pollutant contributing to eutrophication of lakes and seashores. The more recent discussion was initiated by the scenario of a forthcoming resource scarcity for P as fertiliser, also known as Peak Phosphorus. This scenario implicates a production maximum in the foreseeable future after which availability of phosphorus would considerably decline. Some researchers suggested that this peak might be reached as early as 2033, whereas more recent figures point to a peak production level at the end of this century.

The need for action
Regardless of when peak production is expected, markets can tighten long before a given resource is anywhere near its end. P fertiliser will likely become too expensive as an input to food production at present costs of food. Therefore, it needs to be treated as a finite resource that is not renewable, only recyclable. In order to reduce P flows and develop efficient recycling measures, a thorough knowledge of material flows is indispensable, as are profound projections of resource availability and a sound estimation of costs.

The situation in many developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, is characterised by highly P-deficient soils. How can this deficit and the ensuing land degradation be prevented or reversed? What are the alternatives, especially for small-scale and resource-poor farmers? These and related questions were discussed at the North-South Forum with about 80 researchers, research funders, policy makers and practitioners working in international development and cooperation. The forum was jointly organised by the North-South Centre and the NCCR North-South.


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