Of the many things threatening the world’s food supply, the element with the ability to wreak the most havoc hasn’t made many headlines. Researchers are now warning that waning phosphorous levels could devastate food production around the globe. A nonrenewable resource with no synthetic substitute, phosphorous is an essential nutrient and it’s disappearing faster than anyone realized.

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Farmers have long been dependent on phosphorous for successful crops, spanning back to the mid-19th century. Increased demand led to a rapid rise in mining in the United States and in China, calving the precious mineral out of the Earth for use in fertilizers that support today’s levels of food production. The rise of meat production, which requires 50 times as much phosphorus as vegetable farming, further accelerated the demand for phosphorus fertilizers, which is expected to double by 2050.

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This warning comes from two researchers who have been busy evaluating the chain of events that brought us to where we are today: in a world with an uncertain food future. Together, Charly Faradji, Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry and Marissa de Boer, Project Manager for SusPhos and researcher at VU University Amsterdam, penned a grim description of how phosphorous depletion causes dangerous geopolitical conflicts, environmental problems, and potentially widespread hunger.

“It cannot be replaced and there is no synthetic substitute: without phosphorus, there is no life,” they write.

The solution? Like many other environmental problems currently facing our planet, consumption is key. Reducing our dependence on phosphorous fertilizers would be a giant step toward returning to a time when levels of the precious nutrient were stable. Phosphorous could also potentially be recycled, though the technology is still in development. The sure thing, though, is that phosphorous is an important factor that shouldn’t be ignored any longer.

Via The Conversation

Images via Shutterstock (1, 2)