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We’re seeding ecological problems even as we deplete reserves of a key fertilizer.
Our planet faces “phosphogeddon,” scientists have warned. They fear our misuse of phosphorus could lead to deadly shortages of fertilizers that would disrupt global food production.
At the same time, phosphate fertilizer washed from fields—together with sewage inputs into rivers, lakes and seas—is giving rise to widespread algal blooms and creating aquatic dead zones that threaten fish stocks.
In addition, overuse of the element is increasing releases of methane across the planet, adding to global heating and the climate crisis caused by carbon emissions, researchers have warned.
“We have reached a critical turning point,” said Phil Haygarth, a professor at 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 calamity that we have termed ‘phosphogeddon.’”
Phosphorus was discovered in 1669 by the German scientist Hennig Brandt, who isolated it from urine, and it has since been shown to be essential to life. Bones and teeth are largely made of the mineral calcium phosphate—a compound derived from it—while the element also provides DNA with its sugar phosphate backbone. “To put it simply, there is no life on Earth without phosphorus,” explained Prof Penny Johnes of Bristol University.
The element’s global importance lies in its use to help crop growth. About 50 million metric tons of phosphate fertilizer are sold around the world every year, and these supplies play a crucial role in feeding the planet’s 8 billion inhabitants.