The recent shortage of medical radioisotopes that I’ve posted about has raised my feelers for similar things. Steve Coll, writing in The New Yorker, relates a story of yet another important element that is running scarce that most people don’t give a first thought, much less a second. The element in question is not nuclear, not strictly biological and not strictly energy-oriented.
It’s phosphorus. As Coll notes, the scarcity of this element is exacerbated by the increasing use of fertilizer. The 2008 rise in fertilizer prices give some indication of what might happen as demand for phosphorous increases. It might take a few food price spikes to prompt appropriate responses. While recycling of phosphorous makes sense, and is probably on the drawing board somewhere.
I take Coll and the researcher he cites, James Elser at Arizona State, at face value about the staggering lack of information on global supply and usage of phosphorous. With scarcity becoming a factor with more and more elements, it seems prudent to try and measure and fill these information gaps as best as possible. With the new attention given to research at the Department of Agriculture, perhaps they are a good place to start a campaign to better know our phosphorous.