Research News

Is our phosphorus use sustainable?

Stakeholders have doubts about long-term phosphorus sustainability
August 22, 2023

A U.S. National Science Foundation-supported study finds that most phosphorus stakeholders — representing a wide swath of industry, agriculture, environmental and policy interests — have significant doubts about the long-term sustainability of existing phosphorus management systems. The study underscores the complex challenges facing policymakers and other decision-makers as they attempt to ensure our continued access to a critical resource that is finite and largely non-renewable.

Phosphorus is a naturally occurring element used in a wide variety of industrial sectors. For example, phosphorus is a key ingredient in agricultural fertilizers, contributing to food production on a global scale. However, phosphorus runoff also contributes to major water quality issues, such as the formation of oxygen-free "dead zones."

"From an industry standpoint, the fertilizer, agriculture, mining, food processing and chemical manufacturing sectors all have a stake in phosphorus — it's an incredibly important resource," says Khara Grieger at North Carolina State University, corresponding author of the study. "Phosphorus stakeholders also include policymakers, wastewater treatment facilities and environmental groups who are concerned about the adverse impacts mismanaged phosphorus has on water quality.

"If there are two key takeaway messages here, one of them is that there is very real concern among the majority of phosphorus stakeholders about the sustainability of this essential resource," says Grieger. "The other takeaway is that there is no silver bullet for addressing this challenge — the needs and concerns across stakeholder groups are too varied and tend to be context and site-specific."

If we want to develop systems and policies for sustainability of phosphorus resources, “we have to understand the needs, wants and concerns of relevant stakeholders," Grieger says. "However, to date, very little has been done to understand and document how phosphorus stakeholders view phosphorus sustainability or what challenges they perceive related to ensuring sustainable phosphorus systems more broadly."

The paper reporting the results is published in the journal Environment Systems and Decisions

However, when researchers asked study participants about what is needed to advance phosphorus sustainability, three items stood out.

"More than 50% of respondents reported that new, improved or different regulations are needed; improved management practices and procedures are needed; and new or improved technologies are needed," Grieger says.