Peak Phosphorus

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for all plants and animals. Nothing on earth grows without it. One of the three key components in fertilizer, phosphorus is crucial for enabling the world’s food supply. Since most of the world’s farmland is phosphorus deficient, the nutrient must be constantly mined from phosphate rock and guano deposits and applied to fields to maintain crop yields.   

Unfortunately, accessible world phosphate reserves are declining at an alarming rate. Peak phosphorus is expected to occur by 2030, at which point there will be insufficient reserves to meet global demand. Some say this has already happened and phosphorus prices will begin climbing at increasing rates in the near future.

At current rates of extraction, the US will completely deplete its reserves within 30 years, and global reserves will start to run out within 50–100 years. But the rate of extraction is rapidly increasing, as higher-calorie diets in the developing world increase demand on farmland.  

Three countries control 90% of the world’s reserves of rock phosphate. China, the largest producer, has begun to safeguard its supplies by imposing a 135% tariff on exports. In the United States, where phosphate extraction has already peaked, American farmers are now dependent on phosphate imports.

Phosphorus cannot be manufactured from alternative sources, and there is no substitute for it. However, it can be recovered and recycled. That’s the mission Multiform has been successfully pursuing. Our phosphorus recovery systems re-capture the phosphorous taken up by crops, extracting it from wastewater streams where it all ends up, and convert it to fertilizer that can be re-applied to cropland rather than being flushed into rivers and lakes.

As phosphorus reserves decline, impacts on farm output, food prices, and global security will likely be severe if adequate systems for efficiently using and recycling phosphorus are not widely adopted. Global economic development and food security will be constrained by the availability of phosphorus within only a few decades.

It is clear that a societal response to peak phosphorus is critical, and phosphorus recovery from waste streams is a major step in the right direction. Otherwise, the growing global population, the increasing demand for phosphorus, the decreasing phosphorus supply, and rising fertilizer prices will threaten a massive global food security crisis.

Multiform Harvest intends to be a major provider of recycled phosphorus in the coming decades as agricultural producers grapple with this unprecedented global challenge. There is certainly reason to hope. The struvite we’re already producing works as well or better than mined phosphate fertilizers, is just as affordable, and much less likely to erode into streams and lakes and be wasted.  
We believe the future will grow, and even greener than before.