Re-focusing on phosphorus
Without phosphorus, we cannot produce food.
It’s essential to plant growth, it’s only available in limited amounts in a few countries globally, and we lose four fifths of phosphorus at points across the food chain.
Policy-makers and research bodies are now starting to respond. New research into the role of phosphorus within the UK food system forms part of UK’s Global Food Security program. This £4.9 million interdisciplinary research project will examine the resilience and sustainability of the UK’s food systems.
RePhoKUs (Resilience Phosphorus UK) will undertake the first ever phosphorus vulnerability assessment of the UK’s food system, bringing together experts in catchment science, adaptive capacity and food system vulnerability, which includes ISF’s Dr. Dana Cordell and Associate Professor Brent Jacobs. This research kicked off in Leeds in January, attended by project partners from ISF, the University of Leeds, UTS’s new KTP partner in The University of Lancaster, Bangor University, the Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute, and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (Wallingford).
The importance of assessing the security of phosphorus supplies for the world’s farmers, coupled with widespread phosphorus pollution, has recently been emphasised by the establishment of the UNEP International Phosphorus Task Team in 2015, which Dr. Cordell was a founding member of.
“The UK, India, Australia - all countries that are dependent on phosphorus imports are vulnerable, just in different ways. Some of these ways include a lack of market substitutes being available when supply disruptions in producing-countries result in fertiliser price spikes, which in-turn reduce farmer use of fertilisers, or increased sensitivity of some water bodies to phosphorus pollution from agricultural land, leading to toxic algal blooms,” says Dr. Cordell, on the importance of improving the security of global phosphorus supplies.
At present, the UK does not have any domestic sources of phosphate. This means that the UK is dependent on importing phosphorus in the form of fertiliser and animal feed from one of the few countries that currently produces this mineral.
Additionally, the upcoming exit of the UK from the EU could increase British vulnerability to phosphorus shocks due to exclusion from EU trade agreements, and increased demand for food due to population growth will increase the UK’s dependence on imported phosphorus.
RePhoKUs consists of three integrated transdisciplinary research packages – one identifying variations in the resilience of local agricultural and water catchments in response to phosphorus runoff into water sources, one addressing the capacity of farmers and other stakeholders to adapt to risks, such as implementing phosphorus re-use and recycling options, and one undertaking a phosphorus vulnerability assessment of the UK’s food system to co-design a national adaptation strategy together with national stakeholders.
The third of these research packages will be led by ISF, drawing on Dr. Cordell’s pioneering research into global and national phosphorus vulnerability and security, and Assoc. Prof. Brent Jacobs’ diverse background in agricultural science, climate adaptation and natural resource management reform.
This research builds on Dr. Cordell’s previous research as part of the P-FUTURES project, which brought together over 90 international stakeholders in Australia, Vietnam, Malawi and the U.S, to examine how urban food systems can transform in response to emerging global phosphorus challenges.
It also builds on recent ISF work into phosphorus resilience in the UK. Dr. Cordell and Associate Professor Jacobs recently facilitated workshops in Belfast aiming to transform Ireland's food system with respect to phosphorus resilience, and earlier contributions to the UK Parliamentary Note explaining the importance of understanding the use of phosphorus throughout the United Kingdom.
Associate Professor Jacobs says that “island states are particularly exposed to phosphorus vulnerability. Ireland’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, and this underpins the desire for self-sufficiency. A transition away from a dependence on imported phosphorus fertilisers and livestock feed, towards sources produced locally recovered from manures and other organic wastes contributes to improved sustainability”.
This research is possible with funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Scottish Government.