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Researchers have a role to play in decreasing inequality in access to phosphorus: Thoughts from the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit

January 15, 2015

Author:  Genevieve Metson

Phosphorus as a major concern

From September 1st to September 3rd 2014, scientists from around the world met at the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit 2014 in Montpellier to discuss how to better manage Phosphorus, an essential element for all of us Over the three-day conference, we heard about some of the cutting edge research on both problems and solutions associated with phosphorus management, from soil-plant interactions to regional changes in human diets.

One of the big problems, which many at the conference thought deserved more attention, is inequality of access to phosphorus. In a workshop session on the last day of the conference, 25 of us gathered and decided to think about what role we, as researchers from diverse disciplines, countries, and levels of experience, can play in addressing this problem. We decided to do so by contextualizing the role of researchers within the priorities of phosphorous producers and phosphorus consumers in the development of more equitable phosphorus management.

Setting the stage: What is the phosphorus inequality problem?

Although the vast majority of mined phosphorus reserves are in Africa (mostly in Morocco), farmers on this continent often have the highest need for P fertilizer and the least access. There are high phosphorus requirements for agriculture because most of the soils are old and high in other elements, like iron or aluminum, that make it difficult for plants to get to the phosphorus that is applied. In addition, as fertilizer applications have been low for many years, there are no reserves in the soil. Access to fertilizers is difficult for farmers because costs are high (due to transportation difficulties and limited market development), and their purchasing capacity is low due to low incomes. On the other hand, many other areas of the world with more incomes have been applying excess phosphorus for years. Sustainable phosphorus management entails not only limiting pollution, it also means ensuring that all farmers have access to enough phosphorus to ensure local and global food security. Currently poorer nations, especially in Africa, are far from having access to the phosphorus they need, leading to a situation of inequality.

The workshop: How can researchers help address the problem?

There is almost no pressure or driver for phosphorus producing countries and companies to change production or marketing processes or business models as long as they have access to the resource and can sell phosphorus at a good price. Requiring a firm target for use of recycled products in fertilizer production and encouraging enterprise development for local and small-scale production could be a way forward. This entails not only changing the market, but also changing what it means to be a “producer of phosphorus”. This new definition could include phosphorus reuse enterprises and small producers. Such a shift could lead to local redistribution of power with regards to phosphorus availability and would enable leveraging the co-benefits between phosphorus management, sanitation, and food security (to name a few), and as such address multiple local priorities at once.

The primary concerns of phosphorus consumers (including phosphorus importing countries and individual farmers) moving forward are related to understanding the diversity of the phosphorus resources and the security of supply. Access to phosphorus resources should be tailored to each specific region, country, and context so that consumers can have access to the forms of phosphorus they can afford and the quantities that can help ensure high yields and limited environmental damage.

Research needs to support efforts towards recycling in order to promote a more equitable redistribution (and decentralization) of resources to ensure access to phosphorus for all farmers. We need to develop easy and low-cost tests and tools that make it possible to assess phosphorus needs and availability of resources at various scales. Such tests would enable more equitable access to information. We, as researchers, should also support more partnered research among nations, farms, and cities across the spectrum of phosphorus accessibility contexts. Specifically initiating research projects that include partnerships across currently phosphorus-rich areas of the world to phosphorus-poor areas would be an important step forward.

The summary above was written by the author and may not reflect all the opinions or perceptions of those that participated in the workshop. Dr. Metson would like to thank Dr. Tina Neset-Smid, Jessica Shepard, Rosanna Kleeman, and Zenah Bradford-Hartke for their help facilitating and documenting the workshop session

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