Sunday, March 21, 2010

Moving phosphorus from noxious to precious (report on peak phosphorus)

WINNIPEG—March 4, 2010—The International Institute for Sustainable Development has issued a report today looking at ways to keep phosphorus on the land and out of waterways as part of an overall plan to address issues associated with the health of Lake Winnipeg.

The problem of excessive phosphorus loading is affecting water bodies in all parts of the world, including Lake Winnipeg, which is the tenth largest lake in the world by surface area, and among the most heavily loaded with phosphorus of the world’s great lakes.

Essential to plant growth and all life, phosphorus is mined from rock phosphate deposits and synthesized into chemical fertilizers for food production. While it is essential to food production, Lake Winnipeg and many other water bodies are suffering from algal blooms, feeding off phosphorus from wastewater and agricultural runoff. 

“Phosphorous is an indispensible resource that has been mismanaged to the point that we are jeopardizing our long term food and water security. We need not look any further than Lake Winnipeg to see the consequences of that,” said IISD’s Vivek Voora, co-author of Peak Phosphorus: Opportunity in the Making—Why the Phosphorus Challenge Presents a New Paradigm for Food Security and Water Quality in the Lake Winnipeg Basin.

While our total global phosphorus reserves remain unknown, statistics on deposits found in recent decades indicate that more phosphate is being extracted than discovered. 

Although dwindling rock phosphate reserves may challenge our industrial model of agriculture, it will also stimulate innovation and create new economic opportunities for capturing and recycling phosphorus back onto agricultural lands.

“Closing the loop on our food systems and moving toward phosphorus independence is crucial to maintain long-term global food and water security,” Henry David (Hank) Venema, director of IISD's Sustainable Natural Resources Management program and Water Innovation Centre in Winnipeg.

Agricultural practices that improve plant nutrient uptake can lower fertilizer requirements and runoff. Phosphorus recovery from wastewater, manure, human and food waste can lower mineral fertilizer dependence. For instance, implementing phosphorus recovery technologies in wastewater treatment plants could help recover this precious nutrient.

Phosphorus management and self-sufficiency will be prominent among the solutions strategies discussed at the Lake Winnipeg Basin Summit hosted by IISD’s Water Innovation Centre in Winnipeg, November 2010. The phosphorus management solutions developed at the summit will provide insights for addressing food security and water issues worldwide.

The 18-page report is available as PDF online: Peak Phosphorus: Opportunity in the Making

Executive Summary

The long-term security of our global food and water supplies may be impacted by the mismanagement of our phosphorus nutrient resources. Essential to plant growth and all life, phosphorus is mined from rock phosphate deposits and synthesized into mineral fertilizers destined for agricultural fields. Easily-mined rock phosphate reserves are dwindling and the constraints this could place on fertilizer production pose risks to our long-term ability to feed the planet. Excess phosphorus from agricultural fields runs off the landscape and eventually gets flushed into the ocean, where it takes millions of years to mineralize. Under the right conditions, phosphorus loads can choke water bodies as algae rapidly grow, die and decompose, depriving lakes, rivers, streams and coastal waters of oxygen. This process, referred to as eutrophication, threatens the security of our freshwater supplies and aquatic ecosystems. Phosphorus is fundamental to long-term food security, yet we mismanage it, allowing excess phosphorus to imperil our water resources.

Within the Canadian Prairies, "peak phosphorus" could have serious economic consequences. Rising fertilizer costs will hit the bottom lines of agricultural producers, which may result in higher food costs. Phosphorus mismanagement is also being exhibited within the water bodies of the region. Lake Winnipeg, which drains the Canadian Prairies, is the most eutrophic large lake in the world. This situation clearly points to a need to better manage phosphorus resources by finding more effective ways to use, recover and recycle this precious nutrient.

Fortunately, opportunities to accomplish this are abundant. Adopting agricultural practices that improve plant nutrient uptake and limit phosphorus runoff can lower application requirements. Phosphorus recovery from manure and human and food waste can also lower our dependence on mineral fertilizers. For instance, phosphorus recovery systems could become standardized within wastewater treatment plants. Composting manure as well as human and food waste also represents an important source of phosphorus. Closing the loop on our food systems and moving toward phosphorus independence are crucial to ensuring the long-term security of our food and water supplies. Treating phosphorus as a finite resource shifts our management paradigm from mitigating a noxious substance to recovering and recycling a precious element.

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