Protecting our food supply

Depleted sources of phosphorous in fertilizer is an agricultural concern for a growing worldwide population.

Fossil fuels may consume public attention today, but Dr. David Vaccari of Stevens Institute of Technology has directed focus towards a "looming crisis" in securing a natural resource even more critical for a growing planet.

Delivering an adequate diet to people around the world presents a challenge that will only become more strenuous as the world's population expands by a predicted 38% over the next forty years. Modern methods for feeding Earth's billions require vast amounts of fertilizer, and demand for the primary ingredients in fertilizer increases every year.

Fundamental to these fertilizers is a scarce resource known as phosphorus. In fact, phosphorus based commercial fertilizers are responsible for over one-third of the world's agricultural production.

Dr. Vaccari, Professor and Department Director for Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering, is a very active figure in this international effort to conserve our scarce phosphorous resources and has voiced his concern in an article featured in Scientific American.

His piece entitled, "Phosphorus: A Looming Crisis" focuses on three key points:

1. Mining phosphorus for fertilizer is consuming the mineral faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. Over two-thirds of domestic phosphorus production occurs in pit mines near Tampa, and the US may run out of its own sources in a few decades. Few other countries have substantial reserves, and could also be depleted in about a century.

2. Agricultural practices waste phosphorus and cause environmental contamination. Excess phosphorus in waterways helps to feed algal blooms, which starve fish of oxygen, creating "dead zones."

3. Reducing soil erosion and recycling phosphorus from farm and human waste could help make food production sustainable and prevent algal blooms.

As a critical nutrient for plant growth, there is no alternative to phosphorus in agriculture. This is precisely why it is so important to come up with solutions for its preservation. Global production of phosphorus rock must increase at a rate nearly double that of population growth, supplying a possible collision between supply and demand. The result would be shortages or high cost of foods resulting from more expensive fertilizers.

Dr. Vaccari believes certain methods will help conservation drastically, several of which are outlined in his article. Agricultural erosion and improper land application of animal wastes are sources of major losses. Improved conservation will not only reduce phosphorus waste but also improve the environment.

Dr. Vaccari travels, lectures, and writes extensively to develop awareness about phosphorus resources and global food security, and has been invited to speak at conferences and other events throughout the US and in China, Japan, and Sweden. He is scientific node leader for exploration for the Global Transdisciplinary Processes for Sustainable Phosphorus Management (Global TraPs) project, which is organized from ETH University, Zurich, Switzerland. Dr. Vaccari is also on the Science Advisory Board for the State of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection and conducts extensive research on the health of the region's environment, especially its many critical waterways.