No food without phosphates

Phosphate supplies are depleting whereas phosphate is essential for the growth and development of plants, animals, and humans. To secure food production, societies need to switch to a more efficient use and reuse of phosphate in time. Oene Oenema wants to set out a new course and provide options to industry- and policymakers.

Calculations show that phosphate will become scarcer and more expensive in a few generations. “The phosphate problem is in principle greater than the energy problem because there is no alternative to phosphate,” explains Oenema. “The world is not too concerned yet about its impending shortage. For example, the manure surpluses in regions with high livestock density and the disposal of sewage waste in surface waters and landfills even leads to phosphate being seen as waste instead of a valuable raw material. That is crazy.”

Europe has no phosphate reserves; it is dependent on import. “The idea that the European agriculture is self-sustaining is therefore a myth,” Oenema explains. “Geopolitical and social aspects are also involved, as extractable phosphate rock reserves are present in only a few countries, including China and Morocco. Many soils in especially Africa are very low in phosphate, but many farmers are too poor to buy phosphate fertilizers, especially during periods of shortage-induced price peaks, such as during the period 2008-2010.”

We need good studies on the phosphate cycle in the whole food production – consumption chain, to be able to find opportunities for more efficient use on regional scales, both in Europe and other areas of the world. And we must develop scenarios and technologies for its profitable reuse.” Oenema also aims at a better utilization of soil phosphate. “In a country like the Netherlands, most soils contain a lot of phosphate due to over-fertilization in the past, but not all soil phosphate is directly plant-available. We need to find soil cultivation techniques to make soil phosphate better available to plants.”

“These studies are essential for securing food production in the long run, and for minimizing the eutrophication of surface waters. The latter is a side effect of the discharge of sewage and the leaching of phosphate from fertilized land into surface waters. A multidisciplinary approach is needed, which is a key asset of Wageningen. We have expertise in all phases of the phosphate cycle, including sanitation and the recycling of secondary phosphates back to agriculture.” Oenema’s goal is to provide insights and options to industry and policymakers through research and publications.

Prof. Dr. Ir. Oene Oenema
Prof. Dr. Ir. Oene Oenema

Back to all Food for Thought, Thought for Food projects