Large-scale food production depends on intensive agriculture with substantial inputs, including chemical fertilizers. Most people assume that these practices can continue indefinitely, but as SEI Senior Research Fellow Arno Rosemarin has been warning for years, that is simply not true.

Major sources of phosphate rock, from which phosphorus for fertilizer is derived, are concentrated in a few countries, such as Morocco, and are being rapidly depleted, leaving only lower-quality sources that will be much costlier to extract. Given the economic and food-security implications, Rosemarin says, it is critical that the European Union monitor phosphorus resources and stop wasting this precious resource.

On the eve of the first European Sustainable Phosphorus Conference, in Brussels, where SEI is also presenting a case study from the Baltic, Rosemarin answered questions about phosphorus supplies and EU policy priorities.

Q: Just how scarce is phosphorus becoming?
A: A major issue is that we don’t know for sure. The U.S. Geological Survey rock phosphorus data are the only ones available to the public, and since 2010 they have become more variable and appear to be open to various external influences. For example, the commercial reserves for Iraq were reduced a month ago by about 5.4 gigatonnes. In 2010 they shifted their data for Morocco/Western Sahara from 16 to 50 gigatonnes. My conclusion is that the EU needs to take charge and create its own capacity to monitor commercial phosphate rock reserves – at least in those countries where it is trading phosphate.

Q: Where does the EU get its phosphate?
A: Trading of phosphate rock is quickly disappearing. Only about 15% of the P rock extracted today is exported. The source countries are producing fertilizer products like phosphoric acid and DAP. Most of the U.S. and Chinese commercial sources will be depleted within 30-40 years, so it is mainly Morocco that will be the main source for the EU.

Collaboration and investments in Morocco are required, and Morocco should be encouraged to make the value chain from rock to product more efficient and sustainable. This means changing the industry that up to now has been isolated from both UN and EU oversight. International green standards, especially for resource management, have not yet been developed. The U.S. has pollution standards that protect land, water and air, but they are mainly end-of-pipe solutions that don’t affect efficiency.

Q: How much phosphorus is now wasted?
A: About 40% of the original P content of sedimentary rock is lost through the processing to concentrate, to phosphoric acid and fertilizer. An additional 40% is lost in the application of fertilizer. Erosion from soil is a significant loss, especially in areas with precipitation and runoff. So globally, only about 20% of the original P ends up on people’s plates; in the EU it’s about 25%.

Q: What can be done to reduce waste?
A: Fertilizer use has decreased over the past 30 years within the EU, but reuse from manure can be made more efficient, and reuse from waste sources like organic solid waste, wastewater and sewage sludge will need to be increased if we are to reduce our dependency on imported fossil phosphate.

Phosphorus recycling through manure, of course, is nothing new. But it needs to be given a higher value and done more efficiently. Manure from animal holding facilities needs to be made available to the farmers growing feed. Extraction of P from waste streams is relatively well researched but not scaled up. Extracting Struvite (NPMg) from wastewater and urine is a new option that is being developed in both the EU, North America and even in some developing countries, such as Nepal.

Q: The EU has been slow to act on phosphorus, but the launch of the EU sustainable phosphorus platform this week could help spur action. What would you like to see happen?
A: To start things off, the issues of food security, food prices, food waste and dependency on imported phosphorus need to be brought forward. General awareness among the public and stakeholders needs to be heightened. Many of the other environmental and consumption goals related to energy consumption and carbon emissions can be solved with food and fertilizer as a central platform for change. The green economy based on increased reuse and recycling can be kick-started with food and fertilizer as central elements. Even health among citizens can be improved through wiser food choices such as less meat and animal fats in the diet, which will further increase the efficiency of agriculture systems.

To learn more about the conference, visit www.ESPC2013.org.