Improved phosphorus use efficiency in agriculture: a key requirement for its sustainable use

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Journal Article
Chemosphere, 2011, 84 (6), pp. 822 - 831
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Mineral phosphorus (P) fertilizers processed from fossil reserves have enhanced food production over the past 50 years and, hence, the welfare of billions of people. Fertilizer P has, however, not only been used to lift the fertility level of formerly poor soils, but also allowed people to neglect the reuse of P that humans ingest in the form of food and excrete again as faeces and urine and also in other organic wastes. Consequently, P mainly moves in a linear direction from mines to distant locations for crop production, processing and consumption, where a large fraction eventually may become either agronomically inactive due to over-application, unsuitable for recycling due to fixation, contamination or dilution, and harmful as a polluting agent of surface water. This type of P use is not sustainable because fossil phosphate rock reserves are finite. Once the high quality phosphate rock reserves become depleted, too little P will be available for the soils of food-producing regions that still require P supplements to facilitate efficient utilization of resources other than P, including other nutrients. The paper shows that the amounts of P applied in agriculture could be considerably smaller by optimizing land use, improvement of fertilizer recommendations and application techniques, modified livestock diets, and adjustment of livestock densities to available land. Such a concerted set of measures is expected to reduce the use of P in agriculture whilst maintaining crop yields and minimizing the environmental impact of P losses. The paper also argues that compensation of the P exported from farms should eventually be fully based on P recovered from `wastes, the recycling of which should be stimulated by policy measures.
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