The role of Phosphorus in the Resilience and Sustainability of the UK food system

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre

Abstract

Phosphorus (P) is an essential nutrient required for crop and livestock production, but the global reserves of phosphate rock (PR) from which fertilisers and feeds are derived are a finite critical resource. Phosphorus cannot be made chemically and the UK has no PR reserves of its own. UK agriculture is therefore entirely dependent on P imports of fertilisers, feeds and foods, which are becoming increasingly volatile in cost. A future scarcity of P (either locally or globally), or a significant rise in the costs of P imports, therefore threaten the future security and resilience of the UK food system, but this vulnerability has not previously been evaluated. Brexit may increase the UK vulnerability to future P supply due to exclusion from EU trade agreements. The use of P within UK agriculture is also very inefficient and leads to large wastage, and loss of P to inland and coastal waters causing nutrient pollution or eutrophication. Such losses and the resulting pollution are expected to be exacerbated by climate change. Eutrophication is very costly to society and devalues many ecosystem services linked to water quality including water quantity for drinking, biodiversity and recreation. Regulatory standards to control eutrophication are based on P, and it is therefore critically important to improve the sustainability of UK farming by improving the management of P across the whole food chain. Better stewardship of P has a double benefit: it can firstly increase the resilience of the UK food system to P shocks by reducing UK reliance on P imports and secondly optimize the intensification of agriculture with minimal impact on water quality and increase the value of the ecosystem services dependent on water quality.

In this project, an interdisciplinary research team covering the biological, environmental and socio-economic sciences aims to quantify the vulnerability of UK agriculture and the UK food system to a future P scarcity and assess the thresholds at which P scarcity might impact on agricultural production at farm, catchment and national scale. The work programme will develop and prioritise the adaptations that might overcome this vulnerability; for example through technological innovations to improve P use efficiency and reuse of secondary sources of P and the necessary institutional infrastructure to support these. In parallel, the project will identify the biophysical, technological, socio-economic and institutional barriers to implementing improved P stewardship within catchments (for example by using less, recycling more and lowering end-user demand). This will be achieved through an in-depth analysis of the catchment heterogeneity that influences how P inputs affect agriculture, water quality and cascading ecosystem services and an assessment of the adaptive capacity of stakeholders to implement optimal P stewardship solutions. A multi-actor platform involving stakeholders at local to global scales will ensure end-user engagement and integration for maximum research impact. The project will deliver the first P vulnerability assessment for the UK food chain and identify potential adaptation strategies for improved P stewardship to help maximise the resilience and sustainability of the UK food chain.

Technical Summary

Sustainable management of phosphorus (P) is vital for the resilience and security of the UK food system, and the delivery of ecosystem services (ES) such as clean water and biodiversity. Fertilisers and feeds are derived from phosphate rock, a critical, costly and finite resource, whose scarcity or fluctuating cost (P shocks) could threaten the UKs food security. Phosphorus is also an endemic water pollutant due to inefficiencies in the food chain. Improved stewardship of P is therefore urgently needed both to increase the resilience of the UK food system to P shocks and enable the sustainable intensification of UK agriculture. This project aims to enhance the resilience and sustainability of the UK food system by developing adaptive strategies that will reduce the vulnerability of UK farming to future P shocks and optimise the provision of ES. This will require an interdisciplinary approach, as vulnerability is defined by the human, physical, social, natural, and financial capitals that determine the capacity of stakeholders to make adaptations to current P use. This 3-year project will develop methods to characterize the effects of biophysical, social and institutional heterogeneity in catchments on the response of different ES to P inputs and the vulnerability to P shocks. This will enable the identification of farm and catchment scale adaptation strategies for sustainable P management practices to overcome P vulnerability and enhance ES. The project will also deliver the first national P vulnerability assessment for the UK food system and identify priorities for a National Adaptation Strategy. The project will result in novel outputs that integrate catchment biophysical and socio-economic variability into a suite of co-developed, context-specific, and implementable P measures and adaptive strategies that will increase the sustainability and resilience of the UK food system.

Planned Impact

The sustainable management of phosphorus at farm catchment and national scale is highly relevant to multiple stakeholders including policymakers and regulators, the agri-food industry, the water industry and the general public. The project has a primary focus on stakeholder engagement through the formation of a Multi-Actor Platform (MAP) covering local, national and global networks and through this stakeholder interaction, the project will therefore have considerable potential research impact:

Policymakers (e.g. Defra) - the vulnerability of the UK food system to future phosphorus scarcity has not previously been assessed. The project will provide evidence to underpin where policy interventions might be necessary to (a) improve the efficiency and sustainability of phosphorus use at multiple scales, (b)to develop a circular phosphorus economy in the UK and (c) sustain the future competitiveness and resilience of UK agriculture and the UK food system.

Water Regulators (e.g. EA) - phosphorus is the primary cause of waterbodies failing to achieve good ecological status in many areas of the UK and regulatory standards to control costly eutrophication are based on phosphorus. The project will provide key indicators of how phosphorus (5R) stewardship can be implemented in catchments for the benefit of water quality and where eutrophication control standards are most likely to be met as agriculture intensifies.

Agri-ffod Industry (e.g. AHDB) - phosphorus scarcity could have a major impact on agricultural productivity and the project will identify the thresholds at which productivity might be affected by P shocks, and what secondary sources of phosphorus may be cost-effectively re-utilised to reduce UK dependence on expensive P fertiliser and feed imports. Phosphorus vulnerability assessments will also highlight where agricultural industries need to innovate for improved efficiency and sustainability of phosphorus use. Understanding catchment heterogeneity to P inputs will help farmers to manage phosphorus more sustainably to meet increasingly stringent regulatory standards for water quality protection.

Water Industry (e.g. Water Companies)- Water companies are at the forefront of phosphorus recovery technologies for wastewater and actively involved in catchment management to improve water quality. The project will provide the evidence to underpin where technology innovation is most urgently needed.

General Public (e.g. Rivers Trusts) - society is generally unaware of the dependency of the UK food system on phosphorus, the environmental impact of phosphorus use in the UK food system or the importance of dietary choice on the future resilience and sustainability of the UK food system. The project will provide key data to address this gap.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Film The Phosphorus Story 
Description A 10 minute film to highlight the role and environmental consequences of phosphorus in the food system and to promote the RePhoKUs project. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact None yet 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ia_KKj-UN0
 
Title P350 film 
Description A short film to highlight the 350 anniversary of the discovery of phosphorus using local journey data 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact 314 views on U-tube 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgPHPgCSt3A&feature=youtu.be
 
Description An analysis of phosphorus (P) stores and flows across Europe in 2005 showed that high P inputs (largely as fertiliser) relative to productive outputs was driving low system P efficiency (38 % overall). Lowering system P demand through lowering inputs and better regional governance of P resources are necessary to enable more efficient and environmentally sustainable food systems.

A substance flow analysis of the phosphorus flows through the food system in Northern Ireland and the UK has shown that the efficiency of phosphorus use (defined as useful product/phosphorus inputs) is also very low (38-43%), and that NI and the UK are in a phosphorus surplus that is harming water quality. The surplus has been generated largely because there is too much livestock manure produced relative to the phosphorus demand by agricultural crops. Integrated strategies to increase efficiency and reduce the P surplus are needed if water quality in Northern Ireland and across the UK is to improve.

Interviews, surveys and workshops in two English catchments (Welland and Wye) have highlighted (a) the importance of knowledge transfer and the particularly useful role of catchment-based analyses of local issues in prioritising where actions to mitigate phosphorus loss to water from food production systems maybe best targeted, (b) that catchment stakeholders are only marginally concerned with P-supply challenges, suggesting the catchment may not be the appropriate scale of action to address this vulnerability, (c) the key role that farmers play in sustainable management of phosphorus within catchments and the greater benefits of experiential learning when farmers 'practise what they are taught'. This is because experiential learning deepens farmers' understanding, boosts their confidence and increase the chances of them taking action.
Transforming food systems towards sustainable phosphorus management involves local to global stakeholders. Conventional readings of stakeholders may not reflect system complexity leaving it difficult to see stakeholder roles in transformations. A novel stakeholder analysis method based on five qualitative pillars: stakeholder agency, system roles, power and influence, alignment to the problem, and transformational potential was developed to better define stakeholder relationships to sustainability challenges.

The sustainable exploitation of phosphorus is essential for future food and water security but requires a better understanding of cause and effect, and innovation and investment in new technologies to reduce the resource and environmental burden. There is a pressing need to develop a new generation of nutrient sustainability professionals working collectively to implement diverse, interdisciplinary approaches to tackling the major challenges associated with sustainable phosphorus use.
Exploitation Route The outcomes of the analysis of the Northern Ireland phosphorus flows analysis are being taking forward by the National Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) Scientific Committee and a new national nutrient management scheme to the value of £30million is set to be announced that will least for 3yrs providing free soil sampling, nutrient management advice and risk & nutrient maps across the whole country. A member of the project team has been invited into the consortium to help deliver the behavioural change work. Project outputs have also been included in a forthcoming national report on the evidence base for demonstrating the impact of agriculture on aquatic ecosystem in NI and the need for the N and P regulations.

The outcomes of the analysis of the UK phosphorus flows analysis are being taking forward by Defra in support of their annual nutrient budgeting
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description Expertise and outputs from the behavioural work by the project team in Northern Ireland is to be used in a new national nutrient management scheme providing free soil sampling, nutrient management advice and risk and nutrient maps across the whole country. Outputs from the data analysis of phosphorus flows in Northern Ireland is also to be used in a forthcoming national report on the evidence base for demonstrating the impact of agriculture on aquatic ecosystem and the need for the N and P regulations in Northern Ireland. The findings from project analysis of nutrient flows and water quality analysis in the Wye catchment have changed the ways local authorities and other stakeholders in the Wye catchment view local conflicts over the impact of agricultural intensification on water quality and in planning.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Other
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Bayesian Networks 
Organisation University of Melbourne
Country Australia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are jointly developing a Bayesian network for predicting the transfer of phosphorus in catchments. We are providing the case study catchment on which to build the network.
Collaborator Contribution Our collaborator is helping to build the Bayesian network itself.
Impact None. Maternity leave by the post-doc conducting the collaboration has disrupted this potential collaboration and has now been abandoned in favour of other approaches.
Start Year 2018
 
Description DAERA study 
Organisation Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution University of Leeds (Julia Ortega & Murat Okumah) and AFBI (Donnacha Doody) collaborated with the Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to carry behaviour change surveys and interviews on the impact of a government funded nutrient management schemes which focused on improving phosphorus management at farm scale in Northern Ireland.
Collaborator Contribution DAERA provided previous data on farmer attitudes based on local questionnaires, and helped in the interpretation of the data collected by the project team.
Impact University of Leeds provided DAERA with a report on the outputs of the survey/interviews which was presented to the DAERA Permeant Secretary, other senior DAERA officials and the Agri-Food Industry National Expert Working Group on Sustainable Land Management in Northern Ireland on the middle of 29th of January 2020. This report will contribute to the decision making on an additional spend of up to £37 million by the NI goverment on farm & catchment scale nutrient management schemes in Northern Ireland
Start Year 2019
 
Description Environment Agency Assistance 
Organisation Environment Agency
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Analysis of national and catchment river flow and phosphorus concentration data supplied by the EA
Collaborator Contribution Supply of river flow and phosphorus concentration data from the Harmonised Monitoring Scheme
Impact None yet
Start Year 2021
 
Description National Farmers Union in the Wye catchment 
Organisation National Farmers Union
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Met with National Farmers Union and developed a farmer-based survey questionnaire for distribution in the Wye catchment
Collaborator Contribution The National Farmers Union helped to design the survey questionnaire and distribute to relevant land owners
Impact None yet
Start Year 2021
 
Description Regional phosphorus accounting 
Organisation Natural Resources Institute Finland
Country Finland 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We are developing approaches to achieving zero phosphorus balance at regional scale in UK and Finland.
Collaborator Contribution They are developing approaches to achieving zero phosphorus balance at regional scale in Finland.
Impact None yet. The Covid 19 pandemic has delayed further visits to develop this collaboration and potential output.
Start Year 2019
 
Description SFA analysis - University of Vienna 
Organisation University of Applied Sciences Technikum Wien
Country Austria 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Developed research collaboration opportunities through mutual interest in SFA analysis
Collaborator Contribution Helmut Rechburger and his team from Institute for Water Quality and Resource Management in Vienna contributed training to project team member in SFA analysis with agreement to continue research collaboration in the future
Impact The collaboration produced one joint paper and a policy report in 2020 in the science area of earth science and modelling of food systems. Further collaboration to develop an SFA for nitrogen and carbon and their interactions with P is underway.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Severn Trent Water in the Wye catchment 
Organisation Severn Trent Water
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Analysis and interpretation of river flow and phosphorus concentration data supplied by Severn Trent Water
Collaborator Contribution Supplied water company river flow and phosphorus concentration data for rivers in the Wye catchment
Impact None yet
Start Year 2021
 
Description Welland Partnership 
Organisation Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Analysis of Welland catchment water quality and presentation of project outcomes
Collaborator Contribution Helped the project team convene stakeholders in the Welland Catchment via the Allerton Project and Water Friendly Farming Project and provided catchment water quality data from the Welland catchment
Impact Sharing of preliminary research results to the collaborators and participants following workshops and dissemination of a list of expert responses from the research team to technical questions from the workshop collaborators and participants
Start Year 2019
 
Description Wye Catchment Partnership 
Organisation Wye and Usk Foundation
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Following on from project workshops in the Wye catchment, the project team and the Wye and Use Foundation and their wide range of linked stakeholders are collaborating on an inventory of farming activity and water quality in the Wye catchment.
Collaborator Contribution The project team are liaising with specific stakeholders within the Wye and Use Foundation in gathering catchment specific information on farming activities and river phosphorus concentrations. The partners provided access to stakeholder groups and participants, datasets and data collection sites, online meeting platforms for engaging with others
Impact Sharing of preliminary research results to the collaborators and participants following workshops and dissemination of a list of expert responses from the research team to technical questions from the workshop collaborators and participants. The outcome of this collaboration will be a joint technical report to Wye catchment stakeholders in support of local policy and planning decisions.
Start Year 2020
 
Title Information Board - Phosphorus 
Description The Interactive Information Board is a web-based display of national and regional data depicting the current state of phosphorus use in the UK food system that users can interact with to increase awareness of the phosphorus issue 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact None yet 
 
Description ACP conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Donnacha Doody, AFBI gave a keynote speak entitled 'Regional Constraints on Livestock Production: Opportunities & Challenges' at the Catchment Science International Conference 5-7th Nov 2019. The presentation focused on analysis of the Northern Ireland agri-food system carried out as part of the Rephokus project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description GFS Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Food security blog about the importance of phosphorus in the food system
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Global phosphorus summit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Keynote presentation at the Global Phosphorus Summit, Brasilia 20-22 August
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Industry Platform 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Conference presentation to the European Phosphorus Sustainability Platform - 11-13 June 2018, Helsinki
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description International phosphorus conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Keynote presentation at the Phosphorus Symposium in Leuven, Belgium 10-13 September
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description NI stakeholder workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The Rephokus project team hosted a stakeholder workshop in AFBI Hillsborough on the 26th of February 2020 to present the outputs from the Phosphorus Substance Flow Analysis of the Northern Ireland Food system carried out by Lancaster University (Shane Rothwell). The workshop involved 30 stakeholders from across different sector of the agri-food industry who discussed future scenarios for the management of phosphorus in Northern Ireland. The workshop resulted in very positive feedback from the participant, invitations to present the work to others within DAERA and requests for further meetings from the agri-food industry. Data from the phosphorus SFA was also provided to the DAERA chief scientist for his presentation to the DAERA board on the sustainability of the NI food system which was also on the 26th of February 2020. Data from the P SFA is also being discussed at a meeting between AFBI (Donnacha Doody) and the special advisor (Spad) to the Minister for Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs on the 12th of March
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description P350 Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Public outreach event and workshop celebrating the 350 anniversary of the discovery of phosphorus held at Lancaster University over two days 8-9 October 2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Policy brief 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Policy brief on the structure of the UK food system and the need to increase its resilience to international shocks. Published on the GFS website with a project outline
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description TropAg, Brisbane 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Invited presentation by Brent Jacobs from the project team to symposium on: The outlook for global scarcity of phosphorus reserves for agriculture, TropAg 2019, International Tropical Agriculture Conference 11-13 November 2019, Brisbane Australia. RePhoKUs featured in the presentation as an example of the need for comprehensive whole of society approaches to phosphorus governance and led to an ABC Rural Radio interview on phosphorus circular economy and agriculture. A review paper is in preparation based on symposium presentations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description UNEP P sustainable Economies Meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This global webinar was organised to demonstrate the need for sustainable phosphorus management in lakes through illustration of global case studies
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.unep.org/events/unep-event/demonstrating-need-sustainable-phosphorus-management-lakes-gl...
 
Description Welland workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to the Welland catchment partnership (mainly farmers) on a catchment nutrient budget and the results of a catchment water quality analysis
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Workshop presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Presentation to an international workshop of phosphorus scientists, industry and policy makers in Northern Ireland, 27-30 July, Belfast
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Wye Nutrient Management Board 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A presentation on the preliminary outcomes of the nutrient budget and water quality analysis in the Wye catchment. This presentation was requested following a Wye catchment workshop because the results have significant implications for planning in the catchment.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Wye catchment workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation to the Welland catchment partnership (mainly farmers) on a catchment nutrient budget and the results of a catchment water quality analysis
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020