Recalculating the global use of phosphorous, a fertilizer linchpin of modern agriculture, a team of researchers warns that the world's stocks may soon be in short supply and that overuse in the industrialized world has become a leading cause of the pollution of lakes, rivers and streams.

Double dilemma

Writing in the Feb. 14 edition of the journal Environmental Research Letters, Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Elena Bennett of McGill University report that the human use of phosphorous, primarily in the industrialized world, is causing the widespread eutrophication of fresh surface water. What's more, the minable global stocks of phosphorous are concentrated in just a few countries and are in decline, posing the risk of global shortages within the next 20 years.

"There is a finite amount of phosphorous in the world," says Carpenter, a UW-Madison professor of limnology and one of the world's leading authorities on lakes and streams. "This is a material that's becoming more rare and we need to use it more efficiently."

Phosphorous is an essential element for life

Living organisms, including humans, have small amounts and the element is crucial for driving the energetic processes of cells. In agriculture, phosphorous mined from ancient marine deposits is widely used to boost crop yields. The element also has other industrial uses.

But excess phosphorous from fertilizer that washes from farm fields and suburban lawns into lakes and streams is the primary cause of the algae blooms that throw freshwater ecosystems out of kilter and degrade water quality. Phosphorous pollution poses a risk to fish and other aquatic life as well as to the animals and humans who depend on clean fresh water. In some instances, excess phosphorous sparks blooms of toxic algae, which pose a direct threat to human and animal life.