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An element of concern: phosphorus, food and our future

What element is commonly found in every living creature on Earth yet may become scarce in our lifetimes? If you answer phosphorus, youd be one of only a few individuals in tune with scientists and governments aware of limitations in this mined resource.

How can a common element find itself considered alongside rare earth elements as an issue of national security? What many people dont understand is that the great majority of the phosphorus used in intensive agriculture comes from fertilizers, and essentially all of that comes from mines. Ninety percent of identified geological reserves of phosphorus are located in only five countries: Morocco and Western Sahara, China, South Africa, Jordan and the United States; and real questions are emerging about what reserves actually remain.

To address these concerns, Arizona State University will host an international conference, the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit, Feb. 3-5, 2011. The summit will partner guest speakers, such as Dana Cordell and Stuart White, co-founders of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, and science communicators, such as Andrew Revkin, prize-winning journalist and author, with international experts in academia, industry, NGOs, government, and students and stakeholders in diverse fields, such as agriculture, biogeochemistry, business, economics, chemical and civil engineering, policy and governance, national security, and international relations.

The early registration deadline is Jan. 1. To register, visit:

The goals of the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit are to build collaborations and reliable information about the problem. The hope of the organizers is the that expansion of creative partners in the U.S. and globally with farmers, educators, engineers, designers and civic leaders will fuel development of technologies to support green agriculture and wastewater reclamation, and functional approaches to issues of social and environmental equity, development of national and international policy and long-term sustainability.

Element scarcity

Phosphorus has been operating at the level of human society for some time. It is key to development of bones, teeth and DNA. As a key component of fertilizer, phosphorus is also as critical to agriculture as water. Farmers use millions of tons of phosphorus on their fields every year, much of which is later literally flushed down toilets.

While human activities are estimated to have increased bioavailable phosphorus by 400 percent and fueled the green revolution, they have also led to severe environmental consequences, greening of waterways, contamination of coastal waters and formation of dead zones. And the demand for phosphorus continues to increase even while phosphate reserves, the only viable source of this critical element, are on the decline.

Some countries are beginning to address the potential threat of long-term phosphorus scarcity, such as China and Sweden. The United States, the largest consumer of phosphorus, has, however, largely ignored the issue, which is why ASU scientists and students launched the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative on Earth Day in 2010. This effort was spearheaded by James Elser, Regents Professor in the School of Life Sciences in ASUs College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Daniel Childers, professor in the School of Sustainability and senior sustainability scientist with the Global Institute of Sustainability; and Mark Edwards, professor with W.P. Carey School of Business ( The group also maintains a website and a blog,

Call for artists

What can be done is just one of the questions to be explored at this interdisciplinary workshop-based conference, which has been largely developed by doctoral students at ASU in partnership with ASUs School of Life Sciences and Global Institute of Sustainability. In addition to the scientific exchange, poster sessions and workshops, the summit also offers a route to increase public engagement through an art contest, and an art show and banquet on Feb. 5 at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Entry to the garden to view the show will be free for the public starting at 8 a.m. Attendees must register to attend the banquet.

To enter a work of art for this event (deadline Jan.1):

We need to be asking how we can achieve sustainable P by closing the P cycle in human and agricultural waste streams, Elser says. Our hope for this Summit is that we and our students can help better define the problems and turn an idea into creative solution building with the international community.

Contact: margaret coulombe
Arizona State University

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