Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Bence Balla-Schottner)

Food safety is a very important topic, especially at a time when pollution, climate change, urbanization and population growth have never been more intense. Phosphorus plays an important role in ensuring food safety, as a nutrient that promotes plant growth. It is primarily used in the production of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields, but it is also a key ingredient in animal feed. Furthermore, its use is recorded in the production of steel, food additives, some pesticides, household cleaning agents and more. Although it is very useful, its excessive and improper use can cause many unwanted effects and leave negative consequences for the environment and the living world.

Agriculture is the main polluter when it comes to phosphorus. Its benefits end when there is too much of it. If too much of it is present in the soil, phosphorus depletes the soil of its natural resources. It becomes particularly harmful when it ends up in rivers, lakes and oceans because a process called eutrophication can occur. The increase in nutrients in the water leads to algal bloom, i.e. excessive reproduction of aquatic plants, mainly algae, which further affects the living world in this ecosystem. The so-called algal bloom degrades the quality of drinking water and leads to the creation of dead zones where there is not enough oxygen, which living things in the water need to survive.


Photo-illustration: Pixabay

Phosphorus pollution of water has doubled in the last century and the trend continues. To solve the problem, there have to be sustainable practices of phosphorous use in place. The United Nations Environmental Protection Program (UNEP) explains that it’s false to claim that crop yield will increase if more phosphorous is used and adds that the solution lies in determining a suitable amount. Instead, different farming practices would significantly solve this problem. Some of the examples are the use of manure or, say, to reduce the frequency of soil cultivation, as this will improve soil quality and reduce the need for fertilizer.

Additionally, wastewater also releases large amounts of phosphorus into the environment and with proper treatment, its concentration could be reduced by about 80 percent.

Finally, it should be noted that phosphorus is a limited resource, which is another reason why it should be used more responsibly. As stated on the UNEP website, this can be achieved through more efficient mining and processing of phosphorus. Other data show that a significant part of global phosphorus reserves have already disappeared and that those that remain are found in only very few areas, among them Morocco and the Western Sahara. More precisely, close to 170 million tonnes of phosphate rocks are mined annually for the sake of agriculture, that is, to keep the soil fertile.

Katarina Vuinac