Endangered Species List on the Periodic Table?


Phosphorous: A Broken Biogeochemical Cycle

It sounds ridiculous: how could an element on the periodic table be an endangered species? The scientist, James Elser of Arizona State University, who is asking if we need a 'Red List' for phosphorous uses the term to raise awareness. Pandas are cute. Phosphorous, on the other hand, is an essential building block of life, without which the industrial food production that feeds earth's burgeoning population would collapse.

According to Elser: "Humans control the global phosphorus cycle, more than carbon, more than nitrogen. Looking at how we're doing with P, I'd have to say: this is no way to run a biogeochemical cycle. We need to clean up our lakes, our oceans and our act!"Elser's commentary "The phosphorus cycle: a broken biogeochemical cycle" in the October 2011 edition of Nature calls for immediate action to fix the broken phosphorous biogeochemical cycle. A cycle requires that something come round full circle. In the case of phosphorous, there is no cycle: P is on a one-way track to dissipation.

When there is no more reserves of concentrated phosphorous, mining will first become expensive, and ultimately become defunct. Elser stresses the urgency of tackling this issue before it is too late:

There's a lot that needs to be done and half-measures won't work. What we need, and what we call for in our Nature piece, is a comprehensive network of nutrient sustainability research centers, connected closely to policy makers and farmers and the public.

The article in Nature is restricted to subscribers only, but you can read more in the ASU press release.

More on Peak Phosphorous:
Is "Peak Fertilizer" Nearer Than We Think? New Report Fuels Concern
Are We Near Peak Phosphorus?
Is Recycling Our Poop Key to Sustainable Farming?

Tags: Endangered Species | Farming | Fertilizer

Best of TreeHugger