Phosphorus, food and 'messy' problems: A systemic inquiry into the management of a critical global resource

SECAU - Security Research Centre
Publication Type:
Conference Proceeding
ANZSYS 2008, 2008, pp. 1 - 15
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This paper presents a process of systemic inquiry into the roles, relationships and perceptions in the management of phosphorus resources in the context of global food security. Phosphorus, like water, energy and nitrogen, is critical for food production. All modern food production and consumption systems are dependent on continual inputs of phosphate fertilizers derived from phosphate rock. Yet phosphate rock is a finite resource under the control of only a handful of countries - mainly China, Morocco and the US. Production of current global phosphate reserves could peak in 30 years, within decades of peak oil. Given this situation it is surprising that phosphorus is not considered a priority in the dominant discourses on global food security or global environmental change. Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology offers a framework to guide an inquiry or 'learning process' into the nature of the problem situation and system failure, incorporating results of an analysis of stakeholder interviews, a substance flows analysis and an institutional analysis. The soft systems inquiry reveals that not only is there no stakeholder consensus on the nature of the problem, there are no international institutional arrangements, much less an international organisation, responsible for monitoring and facilitating the long-term sustainability of phosphorus resources for food production. Further, without such an actor and associated institutional arrangements, there is no 'feedback loop' that can correct the system. Given the critical nature of phosphorus to all modern economies, this is a concerning finding and warrants further analysis, deliberation and enabling of change.
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