Phosphorus is one of the essential nutrients for plants, animals and humans - to put it simply without phosphorus, life would not exist. Within plants, P is essential to cell development and structure, reproductive and enzyme balance and within animals for bone development, cell structure, reproduction etc. There is no substitute for P, and there never will be.
What do we use phosphorus for?
Some 80 % of phosphorus use is in agriculture, mainly as fertilizers. There are also industrial uses, but these are more marginal and the most important of them, use in detergents, is being phased out at least in the EU.
The quantities used are also extremely important – between 120 and 170 million tonnes of phosphate rock every year for the last thirty years, equivalent to twenty to thirty million tonnes of phosphorus. Without phosphorous, crops do not reach full yield, and animals do not prosper. Low P levels in soils reduce crop yields by well over 50% (an important aspect of low crop yields in developing countries). There are numerous animal illnesses associated with inadequate P intake among which milk fever in high yielding cows. Lack of access to phosphorus (and other fertilisers) is one of the significant problems of agriculture in some areas.
What is the potential problem with future phosphorus resource?
The exact nature of the state of supply is not known, but what seem reasonably clear are five factors, which put together create a scenario that clearly demands further investigation:
In light of the above, DG Environment over the past years has been collecting information related to this topic. Particularly, in 2005 DG Environment commissioned a study on 'Addressing phosphorus related problems at farm practice'.
In light of the very recent publications of scientific community and price volatility of P fertilizers, second study on Sustainable Use of Phosphorus was commissioned.
Building on this work, DG Environment hosted an expert meeting on 17 February 2011: