Why are scientists warning of a ‘phosphogeddon’?
Not only is global mismanagement of phosphorous depleting reserves vital to food production, but the element’s profligate use is also adding to the climate crisis.
‘To put it simply, there is no life on Earth without phosphorus,’ says Professor Penny Johnes, who teaches biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol.
The element, which was discovered in 1669 and has since proved to be essential to humanity’s survival, is currently the focus of some scientists’ concerns about the future of our planet.
As they warn, we’re looking at a calamity they’ve termed ‘phosphogeddon’ if we don’t urgently adapt the way we use phosphorous.
This is due to two factors.
Firstly, global mismanagement of phosphorous is leading to deadly shortages of fertilisers that would disrupt food production around the world.
For the unfamiliar, the nutrient’s importance lies in its ability to aid crop growth.
Every year, approximately 50 million tonnes of phosphate supplies are sold to play a role in feeding our population of 8 billion and counting.
If the already limited number of reserves (located in Morocco, the western Sahara, China, Algeria, and the US) were to be depleted entirely, many nations would be left struggling to obtain enough to provide for their citizens.
The prospect of the strain this will cause has raised fears amongst analysts, who worry that cartels could soon control most of the world’s supplies and leave the West extremely vulnerable to soaring inflation and high unemployment — akin to the oil crisis of the 1970s.
However, this potential outcome is minimal in the face of the second, more immediate, threat that this issue poses, which is its contribution to our worsening environmental emergency.
According to scientists, phosphate runoff from fields is giving rise to widespread algal blooms and creating aquatic dead zones that are impacting fish stocks and the element’s profligate use is also increasing releases of methane which is adding to global heating.
In other words, discharges of phosphorous-rich effluent have triggered large-scale contamination of water and created harmful levels of cyanobacteria in rivers, lakes, and seas that generates a chemical 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere when it decays.
To combat this, they stress that we must find a better means of recycling the nutrient and ensure there is a societal shift towards healthy diets with low phosphorous footprints as soon as possible.
‘We have reached a critical turning point,’ says Professor Phil Haygarth of Lancaster University.
‘We might be able to turn back but we have really got to pull ourselves together and be an awful lot smarter in the way we use phosphorus. If we don’t, we face a phosphogeddon.’