What Is 'Peak Phosphorus', And How Will It Affect You In The Future?

06/10/2016 11:33 AM AEDT | Updated 10/11/2016 12:19 PM AEDT
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Climate change. Fossil fuel shortages. Both headline-grabbing issues that we're confronted with daily -- but how many of us have heard of 'peak phosphorus'?

While it certainly hasn't garnered even a fraction of the column inches that these other environmental threats have over the last decade, peak phosphorus is one of the most pressing issues we're facing globally, and it's an issue I'm dedicated to try and solve.

In short, phosphorus is one of the basic requirements for life on earth. Phosphate deposits take millions of years to form, but after less than a century of mining them for fertiliser there's a serious concern that the available resources will run out -- which is what we call 'peak phosphorus'. And while there are alternatives to move on from our current dependence on fossil fuels -- electric cars and the like -- there is no alternative to phosphorus.

Phosphate -- It's the chemical backbone of DNA; every cell, plant and living thing needs phosphorus to survive. It's in our cells, our bones -- we can't function without it. It also means that without phosphorus, we can't produce food. The bad news is, we're running out.

When it does run out, we'll be looking at a global food crisis. But even if it doesn't, what will happen in the fairly near future is that the price of phosphorus fertiliser will increase dramatically. Because the reserves aren't unending, it's a problem of demand outstripping supply and the farmers are the ones who will suffer the most, especially here in Australia.

In this country we need to import most of the phosphate fertiliser as our own reserves aren't enough. So, in 2007/2008 when global fertiliser prices almost doubled, Australia's farming community was left in tatters and we had a small taste of what might yet come to pass: farmers giving up their livelihoods, rural communities torn apart -- it was troubling to see. And, as the cost of phosphorus fertilisers increases for farmers, so will the cost of our food.

We're already struggling to feed a global population of 7.4 billion and by the middle of this century, this number is set to increase to nine billion -- the largest number of mouths to feed in human history. Many estimates suggest that we'll need to grow 50 percent more food to cope with this. As you can see, the numbers don't really stack up.

But it's not all doom and gloom. The good news is that we can do a lot about this crisis. In my job as a plant biologist at La Trobe University, I am looking at ways we can use phosphate more efficiently. Currently, crop plants can only use between 30 and 45 percent of the phosphate fertiliser, so I'm working on cultivating plants that have an improved uptake capacity and are overall less reliant on it. To achieve this, we are looking at how plants have adapted to low phosphate availability in their environment. Identification of the underlying genes will then allow us to re-introduce these useful traits into our modern crop varieties.

Being involved at this 'make or break' research can be emotionally draining at times. The ramifications of what can happen if we don't succeed is always at the back of my mind and I've seen first hand how local farmers and their families have been affected. It is challenging work, but hugely rewarding at the same time. Students and researchers in our team are highly motivated to make a difference to local farming communities.

Though phosphorus likely won't be peaking in the next 100 years or so -- which was a prediction previously made -- it is very much a finite resource. New reserves have been found in Namibia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, but we don't know how many new mining leases will be granted.

As a researcher, you're always thinking about raising awareness of these issues too. We really need to make the public aware that this is a serious problem and that we need to tackle it together. Every Australian can do their bit: shop locally to help support farmers and buy products farmed using best agricultural practices. It may cost a bit more, but it will help us all in the long-run.

We have to work together to help find a solution while we still have time. A phosphorus-scarce future won't be pretty and it's one that we need to prepare for sooner rather than later to ensure global food security.

Watch Dr Ricarda Jost and her colleague Professor Jim Whelan explain the impact of phosphate on global food supplies here.

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