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  • by Karma Loveday

Experts target 50% phosphorus pollution cut and recycling increase

A report from a team of international specialists has called on governments across the world to adopt a '50, 50, 50' goal: a 50% reduction in global pollution of phosphorus and a 50% increase in recycling of the nutrient by the year 2050.

Our Phosphorus Future – written by a team of 40 international experts from 17 countries led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and the University of Edinburgh, and supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – argued global mismanagement of phosphorus is causing twin crises in food security and pollution.

Global food security remains threatened as many farmers struggle to afford sufficient phosphorus fertiliser for their crops. Only four countries* control around 70% of the annual global production of phosphate rock from which phosphorus is extracted, leaving the market exposed to massive fluctuations in costs and supply due to political disputes, trade wars and escalating fuel prices.

Meanwhile, overuse of fertilisers and sewage pollution pump millions of tonnes of phosphorus into lakes and rivers each year, damaging biodiversity and affecting water quality.

Professor Bryan Spears of UKCEH, one of the lead authors, said: “More efficient use of phosphorus in agriculture and increased recycling, for example from wastewater, can increase resilience in the food system while reducing pollution of lakes and rivers that are biodiversity hotspots and important for drinking water supply.”

According to the report, adopting the '50, 50, 50' goal would create a food system that would provide enough phosphorus to sustain over four times the current global population, save farmers nearly US $20bn in annual phosphorus fertiliser costs and avoid a projected yearly clean-up bill of over US$300bn to remove phosphorus from polluted water courses. The cost of responding to water-based phosphorus pollution in the UK alone is estimated at £170m per year.

Recommendations in Our Phosphorus Future included:

  • integrating livestock and crop production so phosphorus in animal manure is applied to crops, reducing the demand for chemical fertilisers;

  • moving towards more sustainable diets, which would reduce the amount of phosphorus needed to grow animal feed;

  • reducing global food waste, meaning less demand for crops and animal products, and therefore phosphorus; and

  • improving wastewater treatment to remove phosphorus from sewage, so it can be reused and does not enter lakes and rivers.


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