On the history of a reoccurring concept: phosphorus scarcity

Andrea E Ulrich, Emmanuel Frossard
Science of the Total Environment 2014 August 15, 490: 694-707
Despite evidence against imminent global phosphate rock depletion, phosphorus (P) scarcity scenarios and the subsequent consequences for global food security continue to be a matter of controversy. We provide a historicizing account to evaluate the degree and relevance of past human experiences with P scarcity. Using more than 80 literature sources, we trace the origin of the P scarcity concept and the first accounts of concerns; we report on three cases of scarcity discourse in the U.S. and revisit the concept of future resources. In addition, we present past evaluations of phosphate rock reserves and lifetime estimates for the world, the U.S., Morocco, and the Western Sahara, as well as past attempts to model phosphorus supply or collect information on phosphate rock. Our results show that current concerns have a long legacy and knowledge base to draw from and that promulgating the notion of depletion is inconsistent with past findings. We find that past depletion concerns were refuted by means of new resource appraisals, indicating that the supply was substantially larger than previously thought. Moreover, recommendations for national P conservation policies and other practices seem to have found little implementation. We demonstrate the merit of historic literacy for social learning and the weakness of the current P sustainability debate because it does not include this past knowledge.

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