Life's bottleneck: Sustaining the world's phosphorus for a food secure future

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Journal Article
Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2014, 39 pp. 161 - 188
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Copyright © 2014 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved. Phosphorus security is emerging as one of the twenty-first century's greatest global sustainability challenges. Phosphorus has no substitute in food production, and the use of phosphate fertilizers in the past 50 years has boosted crop yields and helped feed billions of people. However, these advantages have come at a serious cost. Mobilizing phosphate rock into the environment at rates vastly faster than the natural cycle has not only polluted many of the world's freshwater bodies and oceans, but has also created a human dependence on a single nonrenewable resource. The 2008 phosphate price spike attracted unprecedented attention to this global situation. This review provides an updated and integrated synthesis of the biophysical, social, geopolitical, and institutional challenges and opportunities for food security. Remaining phosphorus resources are becoming increasingly scarce, expensive, and inequitably distributed. All farmers require fertilizers, yet a sixth of the world's farmers and their families are too poor to access fertilizer markets. Inefficient use of this fossil resource from mine to field to fork calls for substantial reduction in demand through efficiency and recycling. Phosphorus governance at global, regional, and local scales is required to stimulate and support context-specific sustainable strategies to ensure all the world's farmers have sufficient access to phosphorus to feed the world and ensure ecosystem integrity and farmer livelihoods.
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