A mineral not only essential to farming, but also to life on earth is running out, and scientists currently are at a loss as to what to do about it.

The mineral is phosphorus, which, as The London Times reported two years ago, is being “mined, used and wasted as never before.”

To say that phosphorus is critical both to farming and life in general is no understatement. Phosphorus serves a critical metabolic function in plants and animals, helping organisms store and use energy for growth and reproduction. Without it, food production would be impossible.

Phosphorus is equally as critical to humans, aiding both our metabolism, respiration and building strong bones.

“Plants take it up, we ingest the plants or we ingest animals that ingest other plants,” says Charles Mitchell, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System agronomist and Auburn university professor of agronomy and soils who has followed the growing crisis for several years.

How serious is the phosphorus shortfall?

“There are estimates we have as little as 50 years left in the current phosphate mines,” says Mitchell.

The London Timesreports that “massive inefficiencies” in farm-to-fork food processing coupled with growing Asian demand for meat and dairy produce account for much for the current phosphorus pinch. Spikes in demands for biofuel crops have also contributed.

Much like oil and coal, naturally occurring phosphate deposits are by-products of the death and decay of organisms over millions of years.  However, compared with oil and coal, such deposits are rare.

“Because phosphate is so distributed in plants and animals worldwide and so reactive with other elements, you don’t find naturally occurring deposits as readily as you do coal or oil,” Mitchell says.