Among the world's hotly debated environmental and resource security issues, a looming peak in phosphorus production for fertiliser has gone relatively unnoticed according to the organisers of an international summit in Sydney thist week.
The 3rd Sustainable Phosphorus Summit is the first event of its kind in Australia specifically addressing issues of phosphorus scarcity and food security. It is being held at the University of Technology Sydney over three days from Wednesday 29 February.
The Summit will bring together key international science, policy and industry stakeholders from different parts of the food production and consumption chain concerned about the role of phosphorus availability and accessibility in global food security, about protecting the environment, and about supporting rural and urban livelihoods. Themes include:
Bringing together a diverse group of international and local industry, policy, scientific and food security specialists, the summit is building on the fledgling interest in long-term phosphorus security, sparked by the 800 per cent price spike of phosphate commodities in 2008.
"It is expected that global supplies of concentrated high-grade phosphate rock may run out in the next 100 years under current usage patterns," said Professor Stuart White, Director of the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), which is hosting the summit. "Of the major plant nutrients, phosphorus appears to be the one with some potential for shortfalls in supplies to generate significant price increases, particularly as reserves occur in a relatively small number of countries, notably China and Morocco.
"This has serious implications for the world's ability to feed itself as population increases – the human body needs phosphorus to function, which it gets from food. Much of what we eat, in turn, comes from the phosphorus in soils that enables crops to grow.
"Yet the public remains largely unaware of the potential threat, underscored by a lack of political action on the issue across the globe.
"Phosphorus sustainability is a 'wicked' problem, but it is not a rarefied one. We need to learn from other resource areas and address things in a cost-effective way. Food affects everyone – there is strong economic and social advantage to create a 'soft landing'."
One notable voice in the push to bring attention to the phosphorus story is Professor Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his pivotal work on ozone depletion. A keynote interview at the summit, Professor Crutzen has commented, "There is an urgent need to take action now to ensure we will have sufficient phosphorus to feed humanity into the future."
ISF researcher and co-founder of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, Dr Dana Cordell, said the push for action would be taken up in Australia by a National Strategic Phosphorus Advisory Group to be established at the summit.
The high-level group is being established to examine and advance the cause of sustainable phosphorus in Australia. Members include noted nutritionist Rosemary Stanton and representatives from the CSIRO, the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Fertiliser Industry Federation of Australia, Geoscience Australia and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, among others.
"There is a strategic window of opportunity to develop a partnership from this summit to advance understanding of this global dilemma and promote sustainable solutions," Dr Cordell said.
"It is expected the summit will deliver the Blueprint for Global Phosphorus Security, a landmark document which will form the basis for further research and policy action in Australia and across the world to secure phosphorus supplies," she said.