Our Phosphorus Future (OPF)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


Why do we care about phosphorus? Phosphorus is an essential element for both plant and animal growth and is not replaceable by other elements. In the last 50 years phosphate fertilisers have enhanced crop yields, providing food for billions of people and livestock. World food security is dependent on sufficient access to phosphorus fertilisers for farmers. However, the main source of phosphorus for fertilisers is mining of rocks found only in a few countries, mainly located in politically unstable regions of the world. Many countries, including the UK, rely on imports of phosphate rock for food production. With increasing human population growth and changes in, the worldwide demand for rock phosphate reserves has increased significantly and is projected to continue in the future. Consequently, rock reserves of phosphate are becoming increasingly scarce and the reserves that remain are of poorer quality, often being contaminated with the potentially toxic elements, uranium and cadmium. These concerns have driven fluctuations of fertiliser price and potential political instability. Currently a sixth of the world's farmers cannot afford P fertilisers. At the same time, the mobilisation of phosphorus into the environment has increased fourfold due to greater use of phosphorus fertilisers and uptake and excretion of phosphorus-containing food by the growing human population. The resulting increased phosphorus concentrations in rivers, lakes and coastal waters is causing widespread eutrophication, characterised by toxic algal blooms, oxygen "dead zones" and fish kills. Eutrophication is considered the greatest cause of damage to freshwater ecosystems on the planet.

What is needed? Phosphorus security is critical for realising many goals of global society. These include food security and provision of clean water, integrity of ecosystems and fertile soils, maintaining livelihoods, human health and geopolitical security. However, there is little global joined-up thinking about how we can deliver a secure phosphorus future. While the underlying science is key to understanding the nature of the problem and devising technical solutions, our understanding of phosphorus science and technology is only one part of the solution. There is a lack of policy at regional or global scales relating to phosphorus, with phosphorus remaining chronically under-represented within the public consciousness. The United Nations Environment Programme has acknowledged a critical need to identify how we manage phosphorus.

What this project delivers. Recognising these global challenges, the 'Our Phosphorus Future' project aims to provide scientific consensus from the global scientific phosphorus community on how to best deliver phosphorus security. The global relevance of this project is demonstrated by the financial support from partners and commitment of UK and worldwide scientists secured already. UK-based scientists will lead an international network of leading phosphorus scientists and stakeholders to co-produce the `Our Phosphorus Future' synthesis report. The report will contain an authoritative and agreed evidence base on phosphorus flows at regional and global scales, examine opportunities for new technologies to enable more sustainable phosphorus use, and evaluate the influence of human behaviour and health on the phosphorus cycle. The report is targeted at scientists and stakeholders, such as national and local governments, water and sewage managers, agricultural advisors, environmental regulators and international policy makers. It will be launched at high profile events and will also be freely-available online. The report will act as a catalyst for interaction between scientists and policy makers to develop global phosphorus management beyond the 2-year timescale of the project. To raise public awareness of phosphorus issues, a global media campaign will accompany the launch of the report.

Planned Impact

The "Our Phosphorus Future" (OPF) project has the potential to have significant impact as phosphorus (P) availability underpins food security, yet overabundance of P in aquatic systems is one of the main drivers of eutrophication, the greatest cause of damage to global freshwater ecosystems. We have identified the following specific beneficiaries from this research with whom we will engage.

1) International policy makers and NGOs will benefit from the authoritative OPF synthesis report which will set the agenda for P-related activities of UNEP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and also for the regional phosphorus platforms. The OPF network of multi-disciplinary and worldwide scientific expertise developed during the project will form an invaluable human resource to international agencies for co-designing, commissioning and conducting world-leading transformative research resulting in improved global P sustainability and food security.

2) The water industry and environmental and engineering consultancies will benefit from the overview provided in the OPF synthesis report of technologies and innovations which contribute to development of more sustainable P cycling. This will enable them to target their business and research and development activities towards those technologies and innovations identified as having most relevance to P cycling and high acceptability to regulators and policy makers. Hence business and technical innovation will be fostered.

3) Environmental regulators, regional authorities and governments will benefit from the development of the science-policy support process that OPF will catalyse. This is expected to inform policy approaches to incentivise a more sustainable and circular P economy. For example, lowering maximum allowable concentrations for P concentrations in aquatic systems will incentivise waste water treatment operators to develop new methods for phosphorus removal from sewage. The project will provide innovative online tools for policy makers to inform decisions, enabling the effectiveness of different P management measures to be compared. The research will also be of immediate benefit in informing on progress towards and measures to accelerate achievement of existing environmentally-legislated national and international targets (e.g. "good ecological status" of waters for the EU Water Framework Directive).

4) Researchers will benefit from the extensive opportunities for networking and collaboration which are core to OPF which will be freely and readily available through the OPF network web platform. These will support researchers to develop novel and interdisciplinary research projects that address gaps in our understanding of P cycling and management as identified in the OPF synthesis report. The scientific researchers employed in the project will benefit from skills training and development during the project, particularly in presentation to different audiences, and communication with researchers and stakeholders.

5) Ultimately every human being will benefit from the OPF project through its support for the development of policy mechanisms to deliver: (a) affordable, sufficient and nutritious food for all and (b) enhanced ecosystem services of aquatic systems impacted by eutrophication, for example through recovery of fish stocks in oxygen dead zones. These benefits will be particularly valuable in lesser developed countries. We also seek to engage with and educate the public through the global awareness media campaign which will accompany the launch of the `Our Phosphorus Future' synthesis report.


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Brownlie W (2021) Global actions for a sustainable phosphorus future in Nature Food

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Metson G (2022) Towards net-zero phosphorus cities in npj Urban Sustainability