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Feed the Crop Not the Soil: Rethinking Phosphorus Management in the Food Chain

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School of Environment, Natural Resources & Geography, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW, United Kingdom
ADAS UK Ltd, Boxworth, Cambridgeshire CB3 8NN, United Kingdom
Cite this: Environ. Sci. Technol. 2014, 48, 12, 6523–6530
Publication Date (Web):May 19, 2014
https://doi.org/10.1021/es501670j

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society. This publication is available under these Terms of Use.

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Abstract

Society relies heavily on inorganic phosphorus (P) compounds throughout its food chain. This dependency is not only very inefficient and increasingly costly but is depleting finite global reserves of rock phosphate. It has also left a legacy of P accumulation in soils, sediments and wastes that is leaking into our surface waters and contributing to widespread eutrophication. We argue for a new, more precise but more challenging paradigm in P fertilizer management that seeks to develop more sustainable food chains that maintain P availability to crops and livestock but with reduced amounts of imported mineral P and improved soil function. This new strategy requires greater public awareness of the environmental consequences of dietary choice, better understanding of soil−plant−animal P dynamics, increased recovery of both used P and unutilized legacy soil P, and new innovative technologies to improve fertilizer P recovery. In combination, they are expected to deliver significant economic, environmental, and resource-protection gains, and contribute to future global P stewardship.

This publication is licensed for personal use by The American Chemical Society.

Synopsis

Society relies heavily on inorganic phosphorus (P) compounds throughout its food chain. This dependency is not only very inefficient and increasingly costly but is depleting finite global reserves of rock phosphate. It has also left a legacy of P accumulation in soils, sediments and wastes that is leaking into our surface waters and contributing to widespread eutrophication. We argue for a new, more precise but more challenging paradigm in P fertilizer management that seeks to develop more sustainable food chains that maintain P availability to crops and livestock but with reduced amounts of imported mineral P and improved soil function. This new strategy requires greater public awareness of the environmental consequences of dietary choice, better understanding of soil−plant−animal P dynamics, increased recovery of both used P and unutilized legacy soil P, and new innovative technologies to improve fertilizer P recovery. In combination, they are expected to deliver significant economic, environmental, and resource-protection gains, and contribute to future global P stewardship.

Phosphorus (P) is an essential nutrient required for crop and animal production and for human health. Manufactured inorganic P compounds (fertilizers, animal feed supplements, and food additives) are widely used at high rates, and our society has become dependent on them. Fertilizer and feed P usage is tightly coupled to crop and animal production and will likely increase to meet the future demand for food and biofuel. For over 50 years, farmers in developed countries have been encouraged to invest in P fertilizers and to improve soil P fertility to maximize crop output, often with government support. Feeding the soil has also been the cornerstone of modern organic agriculture since one of its principle founders recognized that “the undernourishment of the soil is at the root of all”. (1) Research has shown that crops will not grow optimally, or utilize other nutrients efficiently, if the supply of P is inadequate, (2) and over 80% of the rock phosphate (RP) currently mined each year is now used for fertilizer manufacture. (3) Together with other agronomic advances, their use has undoubtedly contributed to the green revolution and the success of western agriculture, but at a large cost to the wider environment. High global consumption rates of P fertilizer are depleting the finite reserves of good quality RP, and surpluses of P in agricultural systems are contributing to widespread eutrophication. (4) Phosphorus fertilizers are also a source of harmful inputs of metals, especially cadmium (Cd) and uranium (U), to agricultural soils, and the manufacturing process leaves large stockpiles of radioactive phosphogypsum. Heavily fertilized soils are ecologically less diverse with loss of soil function. (5) There are even reports that excess P in the human diet resulting from increasing meat consumption and use of food additives may be compromising human health. (6) A major question for society is whether our continued dependence on manufactured P is environmentally sustainable and whether the general public need to become more connected with its food production, food processing and waste handling systems and their impacts on global resources and the environment?
The manufacture and use of P fertilizers is extremely wasteful and inefficient. This inefficiency is evident along all parts of the P supply chain, from the mining of RP to the field application of the manufactured product to current patterns of human consumption. (7) Dawson and Hilton (3) estimated that the annual intake of dietary P by the current human population of ca. 7 billion is only between 1.7 and 3.7 Mt yr–1 compared with an annual input of ca. 20 Mt of mined P into global agriculture; an efficiency of <20%. There is also a new threat that P fertilizers will become much more expensive in the future as manufacturing (energy) costs increase and RP production capacity either becomes more regulated in those few countries that have RP reserves, or is unable to cope with the increasing demand for fertilizer P from Asia. For example, in autumn 2008, the price of RP rose to over $400 t–1 from a previous level of ca. $50 t–1 prior to 2007, and further price spikes can be expected. Fertilizer is the most expensive variable cost in current crop production, and farmers are already omitting this agrochemical input when profit margins are small. A scarcity of RP, or higher costs of fertilizers, may therefore threaten future food security and rural livelihoods. New, innovative and sustainable solutions to the use and management of P in the food chain are therefore required to meet the challenging targets of feeding 9 billion people by 2050 and to combat eutrophication problems which will only become worse under future climate change. (7-9) Here, we discuss how the high dependency on manufactured P in developed countries can be reduced through more efficient and sustainable strategies for P management. We focus on P fertilizers and argue for a radical rethink in how we manage them to provide economic and environmental gain and global resource protection, and as a contribution to future P stewardship. (10)

Are Current P Management Strategies Sustainable?

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Fertilizers are an essential component of modern farming systems but are also the main driver of our eutrophication problems. We use fertilizers to maximize crop output but a large proportion of the forage and cereals harvested each year is fed to livestock. Producing meat from feed is very inefficient as animals excrete most of the nutrients they eat and the P excreted cannot be uniformly distributed back to crop producing areas because of the geographical segregation of arable and livestock farming systems. (11, 12) In a similar vein, much of the crop P consumed by humans is excreted and relatively little is returned to agricultural land. This imbalance (leading to wastage) is a worldwide problem and has two major consequences: (a) human dietary demand for P related to increasing meat consumption is a major driver for P fertilizer use, (13) and (b) annual fertilizer P use is closely correlated with the P surplus accumulating in the soil each year and at risk of being lost through erosion: data for the UK are shown in Figure 1. Dietary choice therefore has a direct impact on patterns of P use and their environmental consequences, an impact that society is probably unaware of. This suggests that substantial progress in closing this unbalanced P cycle can only be achieved through lower fertilizer use and greater integration of livestock manure P, and urban bioresources, into our cropping systems. (14)

Figure 1

Figure 1. Trends in P fertilizer use in the UK over the last 40 years in relation to the P surplus calculated from detailed P budgets for UK agriculture in 1973, (15) 1993, (16) 2004 (17) and in 1990, 1995, 2000–2011. (18) Although different methodologies were used, the relationship around a 1:1 line remains the same. The actual regression equation for all data is also given.

In most developed countries, farmers are widely recommended to apply fertilizers to build-up and maintain an “insurance” level of plant-available P in the soil so that P does not become limiting to crop yield in the majority of seasons and cropping circumstances. This is a strategy that feeds the soil to feed the crop, since it relies on soil reserves rather than on fresh applications of fertilizer to meet the temporal dynamics of crop P demand. It is also dependent on a routine method of soil test P (STP) analysis to monitor the build-up and maintenance of soil P fertility which is linked to crop yield response based on extensive and largely historic field experimentation. (20, 21) Such an insurance-based approach has evolved to cater for the inherently low availability of P in soils, low rates of fertilizer P recovery by crops due to so-called soil-P “fixation”, and large seasonal variation in crop response to added P between and within fields. A past tendency to overcompensate for these system inefficiencies using relatively cheap P fertilizers, together with an under-utilization of excreted nutrients, has led to large annual P surpluses, which have continued to accumulate in the soil over time in many intensively farmed areas. (16, 22) This soil-accumulated P has been termed residual P, (23) or more poignantly “legacy” P, (24) and is an endemic and long-term eutrophication risk. With a reliance on STP rather than freshly applied P, fertilizer practices (amounts, timing, and methods of application) have also become less precise, and fertilizer top-dressings after drilling have become more common. These surface applications of highly soluble P fertilizers pose an additional and acute risk of P transfer in land runoff (termed incidental P loss), especially when larger rotation-based dressings are applied. (25)
It has been argued that once a satisfactory or “critical” STP concentration has been achieved, the balancing of P inputs to crop offtake is a highly efficient way to maintain STP and optimize crop yields, with an apparent fertilizer P recovery of close to 100%. (19) However, this view does not take account of the native and legacy P in the soil that is not measured by STP, but which must clearly be contributing to crop P uptake, albeit at a lower level. (26) Long-term experiments indicate that over 85% of the fertilizer P needed to raise STP (e.g., Olsen) to an insurance level is immobilized through abiotic (chemically bound P) and biotic (biologically bound P) processes operating in soils into forms which are not extracted by STP methods and therefore assumed to be much less available. (19) Building up an insurance level of STP over the productive agricultural land in the UK to 25 cm depth in arable soils and 15 cm depth in grassland soils would leave a legacy P store equivalent to 4.1 million tonnes (worth $10 billion) in the soil. In reality the store of legacy P is much greater than this because of the surpluses (ca. 12 million tonnes) that have accumulated in UK soils since the 1930s. (16) Is it sustainable to keep adding increasingly expensive imported P to maintain insurance STP levels in soil when there is such a large store of legacy P already in the soil? One might argue that farmers should keep this legacy P store as a bank to buffer future sharp increases in fertilizer prices, but it is likely that this represents unnecessary expenditure for farmers and this store is continuously degrading water quality at large environmental cost. (24, 27, 28)
In addition to immobilization of fertilizer P by soil, there are other fundamental reasons why a strategy of feeding the soil to feed the crop may not be the most efficient way to ensure crop uptake of its relatively small P requirement (15–40 kg P ha–1). The rapid sorption of P by soils means that crop uptake of P from the soil solution depends on a strong diffusion gradient at the root surface, aided by P transporters that overcome the large difference in the concentration of inorganic (Pi) between the soil solution (low) and the root cell (high). (29) This dependence on a diffusion gradient means that roots themselves can only exploit a small proportion of soil volume (the rhizosphere); data for Triticum aestivum (winter wheat) compiled by Gregory (30) suggest values of <10% for topsoil reducing to <1% in the subsoil. Crops must therefore depend on root growth into P-rich zones in the soil for their P supply, which may reduce yield without continuous applications of inorganic fertilizer to help ensure that there is always a sufficient abundance of such Pi hotspots (i.e., insurance levels of STP) in the topsoil for crop roots to access. The mobility of Pi is also reduced during cold and/or dry conditions, leading to further uncertainty in soil P supply due to seasonal factors.
Soil sampling, STP analysis and its interpretation is also rather imprecise and at best gives only a very rough guideline to predicted soil P supply. (31) This is best highlighted by the fact that a 0.5 kg topsoil sample from a 6 ha field is being used to represent the P status of at least 12 000 tonnes of topsoil. Spatial and temporal variation in STP in a field can be large, methods of STP analysis are not appropriate for all soils, and they do not explicitly take account of organic P release, nor P uptake from the subsoil, which can be substantial. (32, 33) It is perhaps not surprising that maximum crop yields are regularly obtained at lower STP levels than that recommended as critical. (19, 34-36) Such considerations raise an important research question: do we still need to feed the soil to feed the crop or, instead, can P-use efficiency be increased through bypassing the soil to allow more direct uptake of fertilizer P by the plant?

A New Paradigm for P Management

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The current insurance approach to P management clearly constrains progress in more efficient use of P because it relies on fertilizers (and manures when available) to maintain high STP levels in the soil rather than as a direct source of P to the crop. A more sustainable approach is to target the crop more and the soil less (see Figure 2), which requires that crop P demand and soil P supply must be considered separately, and the difference made up with the least amount of exogenous P. While there will always be some uncertainty in crop P demand and soil P supply due to the unpredictability of the weather, and our ability to detect when crop growth becomes nutrient limited during the growing season remains poor, (37) there are a number of potential options to improve fertilizer P use efficiency.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Schematic diagram illustrating the components of a more sustainable approach to P management (Targeted P) compared to current strategies (Insurance P). The targeted approach would use less fertilizer, be more economic, enable lower soil P, and reduce eutrophication risk.

Reduce Crop P Demand

Phosphorus occurs in many forms within the plant, for example, phosphorylated sugars, proteins, and lipids, but its primary and vital functions are in enabling energy transfer through formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and as a component of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA). Phosphorus demand is therefore driven by the energy demands of photosynthesis. (38, 39) However, quantities of P required for ATP and RNA formation are relatively small; assuming 0.25% DM as P, or at least 0.12 g P m–2 of leaf, is required to maintain maximum rates of carbon capture, (40) and that optimum canopies of crops have green leaf areas of around 6 m2 per m2 land, (41) an optimal metabolic P requirement for above-ground biomass is ca. ∼7.5 kg ha–1. This is much less than the normal offtake of P by crops of ca. 15–40 kg ha–1, which suggests that a large proportion of P uptake must be accounted for by storage within the plant as vacuolar orthophosphate, polyphosphate, phospholipids, esters and phytate. (42) A certain amount of vacuolar P storage is required to buffer the cytoplasmic orthophosphate concentration at a very constant level for RNA synthesis and growth, (38, 43) and some storage of phytate in the seed is required to supply metabolic P compounds for germination and seedling establishment. (44, 45) Hence, there appears to be potential scope to reduce crop P requirement by reducing uptake of P into storage compounds provided that crop growth rates and seed quality, nutritional value and vigor are not adversely affected. (46, 47)
Storage of P in the plant is primarily a survival mechanism against interrupted P supply and to ensure seed survival, but becomes exaggerated under conditions of high P supply, and is therefore arguably less important in modern agricultural systems. Phytate is also a poor source of dietary P for humans and monogastric animals, and it reduces the availability and absorption of essential trace elements (Fe, Zn,) and some cations (Ca, Mg) in their diet. (48) A plant that stores less P (lower tissue P) and directs more of its P supply directly to photosynthesis is likely to have higher P use efficiency, accumulate less phytate and have more nutritional value. (42, 49) Lower crop P will also beneficially lower the dietary intake of P by livestock (which is also unnecessarily high in many intensive production systems) and reduce P excretion rates with environmental benefits in reduced surpluses and P transfer to water. (50) Crop breeding to reduce P requirements may play an important role in this strategy. (42, 51, 52) Hammond et al. (53) found up to a 5-fold variation in shoot P concentrations in Brassica crops grown at the same levels of P supply, while recent studies have shown ca. 50% variation in seed P concentrations in Oryza sativa, Zea mays and T. aestivum, which was largely genotypic. (54-56) A single gene for lowering total seed P, as well as phytate, concentration has been identified in Hordeum vulgare. (57) This lpa1–1 allele enabled a 25–30% reduction in endosperm total P and a 13–15% reduction in seed total P concentration. It has been suggested that a reduction of 20–25% in seed P concentration in O. sativa and H. vulgare could easily be achieved without influencing seedling vigor (V. Raboy, Pers. comm). (55, 58) For example, a reduction of 25% in the average seed P content (0.34% P) would lower the P fertilizer requirement of UK cereals by 18 000 tonnes, or 10% of current annual fertilizer consumption, assuming that inorganic fertilizer was used to balance crop P offtake according to the current approach.

Utilize Legacy Soil P

In theory, legacy P reserves in most agricultural soils could support crop P uptake for a considerable time if they could be more effectively exploited by crops without sacrificing crop yields. (23) Reducing legacy soil P would also deliver environmental benefit by lowering the background concentrations and fluxes of soil P in land runoff that are undermining ecological recovery of surface waters. (24) Current soil P sorption theory suggests that release of legacy P into the soil solution by diffusion will only occur when the fraction of P measured as STP is depleted (Figure 3). While the insurance-based approach predicts that P uptake and crop yields will fall when STP declines below a critical level, (19) field experiments have demonstrated that P fertilizer can be omitted for long periods without any loss in production despite lower STP. (59-61) This suggests diffusion rates of legacy P into the soil solution remain sufficiently rapid to satisfy crop demand, although current soil-crop uptake models based solely on P diffusion rates tend to underestimate crop P uptake at lower STP concentrations. (62) Alternatively, plants may be deploying the different genetically controlled traits and physiologically mediated mechanisms they possess to enhance P uptake from the rhizosphere in low P environments. These are probably triggered by an increased delivery of sucrose to the roots when tissue P is low, (63) and which may be mediated by a reduction in auxin transport from the root apex. (64)

Figure 3

Figure 3. Schematic diagram showing the two main stores in the soil contributing P to the soil solution: native P which is very slowly released by weathering and the legacy P from previous fertilizer and manure applications that is more available for plant uptake. The portion of readily available legacy P typically extracted by soil testing (e.g., Olsen) and used to guide fertilizer use is relatively small (based on data summarized by Johnston et al. (19)). The portion of legacy P not extracted by soil testing is very large, not apparently used and could be better exploited. However, the direction of the dominant diffusion gradient (red line) will only be reversed if STP is allowed to decline (blue line).

Four broad plant responses that overcome P limitation can be identified: (a) changed patterns of root growth (root elongation, branching and root hairs) and of symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships that enhance exploration of the soil, (65, 66) (b) release of protons, carbon substrates and enzymes within the rhizosphere that mobilize soil inorganic and organic P, (67) (c) physiological changes that minimize metabolic P demand and upregulate Pi transporter activity within the rhizosphere and plant, (29, 68) and/or (d) root-mediated hydraulic lift of water from deep soil layers and redistribution into dry topsoil that enhances P mobility and root uptake. (69) These different P acquisition mechanisms have different attendant costs and benefits, the best balance of which will depend on the particular soil and aerial environment in which a plant is growing. (70) They are demonstrated much less in modern crop varieties than in wild plants because the breeding of the former has selected for traits that give maximum crop yield under conditions of high soil P fertility. (71) Therefore, while in the short term some enhancement of legacy soil P recovery by crop roots may be achieved by alteration of crop and manure management to stimulate soil P release and turnover, (62) more long-term progress may also require new plant breeding programmes to optimize expression of those traits required for root acquisition of soil P. (72, 73) A further strategy is the addition of bioinocculants (single and/or combined fungal and bacterial preparations) that stimulate microbial mobilization of soil inorganic and organic P, but their effectiveness under field conditions is still uncertain. (74) If acting in the rhizosphere, their effectiveness may be enhanced if combined with new plant breeding with overall benefit to soil function and ecosystem resilience. (5, 75)

Use Recycled and Recovered P

Increasing quantities of organic materials, or byproducts, previously regarded as wastes are now being recovered for potential recycling to agricultural land, particularly composts, anaerobic digestates, municipal biosolids and biochars. (76-78) Along with livestock manures, these bioresources contain valuable amounts of organic matter and nutrients that can improve soil structure and fertility, and substitute for inorganic fertilizers, including P; a recent example of a biochar made from livestock manure is reported by Wang et al. (79) Research on the agronomic (P fertilizer) value of these newer materials is still in its infancy, but a role for bioresources in building and/or maintaining background soil P fertility is well recognized. (78, 80) There have also been recent advances in technologies to recover P from human and animal wastewaters, sludges, manures, and other waste byproducts into potentially useful contaminant-free fertilizers, such as struvite (ammonium magnesium phosphate) and more-soluble products recovered from waste incineration. (77, 81, 82) Many different types of struvite have been produced but they seem to share the property of providing a useful slow-release source of P for crop growth despite their low solubility in water. (83) High rates of P recovery can be produced from acid or alkali digestion of incineration ash; for example soluble ammonium phosphate can be produced at a recovery rate of 80% by acid treatment of sludge incineration ash. (77) If the net agronomic and environmental benefit of applying recovered products can be reliably demonstrated in field experiments, then they might be used more widely and reduce demand for freshly manufactured fertilizers.
Current constraints on the more widespread use of bioresources as a substitute for P fertilizer center on five main issues: (a) quality (including lack of contamination), (b) pollution risk (including eutrophication), (c) public perception, (d) impact on soil biogeochemistry (especially organic matter content) and (e) transportability. Not all recovered bioresources can be safely recycled to land due to the risk of long-term contamination of soil, crops and the wider environment with the vast array of chemicals (metals, organics) that society uses and which persist in the material despite the treatment process. (84) As a result of such concerns, many bioresources still require a permit to be recycled to agricultural land. Even where the risk of contamination or transfer is considered minimal, public perception can prohibit their use in food production systems; for example the case of municipal biosolids. (85) Agronomically, there is also a mismatch between the nutrients (e.g., N:P ratio) contained in bioresources relative to crops’ requirements that can lead to rapid soil P accumulation and increased eutrophication risk. (86) Consequently, farmers are at risk of being penalised for utilizing recycled materials where guideline or regulatory threshold soil P concentrations designed to safeguard water quality are exceeded.
Both positive and negative impacts of bioresources on soil and air quality have also been observed, (87) and improved knowledge of these processes and possible trade-offs is required to determine for each material its potential to make a long-term sustainable contribution to crop nutrition without any negative environmental impact. These bioresources are usually also bulky and their use is often restricted to relatively small land areas because of the spatial disconnect between where they are produced and where they are needed combined with the prohibitive costs of transport. (11) Solutions to these constraints must be found and will need to be integrated with wider decision making and policy at the landscape, catchment and even national scales. For example, in Switzerland, government incentives for more integrated production have facilitated large reductions in fertilizer P imports with no apparent reduction in agricultural productivity. (88) Cohen et al. (77) argue that as urbanization increases, and to avoid risks of contaminant transfer in the food chain, recovery of P from incineration ashes rather than land application of bulky bioresources will become the most efficient way to close the P cycle.

Increase Fertilizer P Recovery

Fertilizer P applied to the soil is rapidly immobilized by soil processes, especially when applied in highly water-soluble forms. Two main options to overcome this soil immobilization are (a) modifying fertilizer formulations to inhibit P complexation and/or provide a slower and more even rate of P release over the growing season, and (b) modifying application methods to circumvent the soil and allow more precise targeting of P to the plant at key times for its growth and development. It can be hypothesized that smaller applications of targeted and novel P fertilizers will satisfy crop P requirements during critical growth phases (early crop establishment and stem extension) more efficiently than relying on much larger P applications to the bulk soil. (37) In combination with other root-rhizosphere management strategies, targeted P can increase fertilizer P recovery and maintain or improve crop productivity. (75) To maximize efficiency, the amount of targeted P will likely be less than is removed in the harvested crop thereby allowing better utilization of legacy soil P. Application of less soluble forms of P (e.g., unprocessed RP) will be a more sustainable option than highly soluble fertilizers where STP is adequate and when P is applied before the crop is sown. Applications of slower-release fertilizers and/or more targeted application methods that do not leave granules on the soil surface will help to reduce incidental P losses in land runoff and reduce eutrophication risk.
A number of new approaches and commercial fertilizer formulations are now advocated to reduce P immobilization in soils, stimulate soil microbial activity to mobilize soil legacy P and/or for direct application to the seed, or plant, to improve efficiency of P fertilizer use. These including polymer-coated, organo-mineral and liquid products for soil application, bioinoculants, seed dressings, and foliar applications. (89) For example, Sekiya and Yano (90) found that crops grown from seed dressed with inorganic P required 60% less P fertilizer to achieve optimum growth. Placement of P close to the seed is a well established technique to improve fertilizer P recovery, (91) but has ceased in some areas to enable faster drilling rates; for example Wager et al. (92) showed that annual fertilizer applications of 10 and 20 kg P ha–1 placed in the soil in close vicinity to the seeds gave average increases in T. aestivum yield and P uptake similar to broadcast applications of 40 kg P ha–1. Jing et al. (93) found that placing P together with ammonium N not only increased root proliferation but also the release of organic acid anions to help mobilize legacy P. The potential for foliar P applications to maximize P utilization and substitute for much larger applications of soil-applied P has also been suggested, (94, 95) although field results are variable due to crop, weather and timing factors. Fertilizer technologies have changed relatively little over the last century and there is a need to develop more efficient fertilizer formulations and practices that can be reliably used in different combinations of soil type, crop type, and environmental conditions.

Conclusions

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There are compelling resource, economic and environmental justifications for society to reduce its reliance on mined (fertilizer) P and increase its efficiency of use. In many countries, a heavy reliance on imported inorganic fertilizers to balance crop P offtake is perpetuating an oversupply of P to a very inefficient food chain, which will only get progressively larger as crop yields are increased to meet the food and fuel demands of an expanding human population. We propose four key steps toward reduced dependence on P fertilizers: (1) investigate the potential to reduce crop P demand because much of the P stored in edible grains is not metabolically useful to end users, (2) recognize and quantify the value of the large amounts of legacy P present in most soils and develop ways to exploit it, (3) increase use of recycled and recovered P that can substitute for freshly manufactured P, and (4) develop more efficient fertilizer formulations and application methods that enable better targeting of applied P during critical growth stages. Adoption of these strategies will need to be integrated with investment in crop breeding programmes and innovative technologies for improved precision in soil, crop and fertilizer management, and be aligned with a greater public awareness of the environmental P footprint of food products. Providing the necessary confidence in new fertilizer formulations, application methods and integrated practices is a major challenge. However, if successful it will result in a controlled depletion of the current excessive levels of P in many agricultural soils, with a major benefit of reduced eutrophication risk. In the longer term as soil legacy P declines, soil P fertility will need to be replenished, but by then crop P requirement is likely to have been reduced through plant breeding and recycled bioresources and recovered fertilizer products (e.g struvite) will be much more available to substitute for RP-derived fertilizers in order to maintain P fertility. Fertilizers will still be needed but their use will be much better targeted allowing significant savings in their use, with additional benefits for improved soil quality and function, less risk of P transfer in land runoff and protection of global RP reserves.

Author Information

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  • Corresponding Author
    • Paul J. A. Withers - School of Environment, Natural Resources & Geography, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW, United Kingdom Email: [email protected]
  • Authors
    • Roger Sylvester-Bradley - ADAS UK Ltd, Boxworth, Cambridgeshire CB3 8NN, United Kingdom
    • Davey L. Jones - School of Environment, Natural Resources & Geography, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW, United Kingdom
    • John R. Healey - School of Environment, Natural Resources & Geography, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW, United Kingdom
    • Peter J. Talboys - School of Environment, Natural Resources & Geography, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW, United Kingdom
  • Notes
    The authors declare no competing financial interest.

Biography

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Paul Withers, Ph.D., is Professor of Geography in the School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography (SENRGy) at Bangor University where he is investigating the cycling, processing and transfers of phosphorus in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, including the development of sustainable systems of phosphorus management in agriculture and its impact on water quality. Roger Sylvester-Bradley, Ph.D., is Head of Crop Performance with ADAS UK Ltd and visiting Professor of Temperate Crop Physiology at Nottingham University; his research focuses on nitrogen management and closing the gap between actual and potential yield in cereals and he is currently leading a project on the sustainable use of phosphorus in arable farming in the UK. Davey Jones, Ph.D., is Professor of Soil and Environmental Science in SENRGy at Bangor and specializes in understanding carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus processes and microbial interactions in the rhizosphere. John Healey, Ph.D., is Professor of Forest Sciences in SENRGy at Bangor where he researches the ecology, management, ecosystem services and sustainability of forest and agricultural systems with a focus on nutrient and carbon cycling, and plant-soil interactions. Peter Talboys, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral research assistant in SENRGy; he is a plant physiologist who is currently investigating novel ways of targeting phosphorus fertilizer for maximum efficiency and yield.

Acknowledgment

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This feature paper was produced as part of the Sustainable Arable LINK Project LK09136 funded by Defra, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Scottish Government, Home-Grown Cereals Authority, Potato Council, Agrivert, Origin Fertilisers, Omex Agriculture, Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, Speciality Fertiliser Products, Severn Trent Water and Virotec Europe. Particular thanks go to A. C. Edwards, SRUC, and D. Langton, Agrii for helpful discussions during the preparation of this manuscript.

References

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  • Abstract

    Figure 1

    Figure 1. Trends in P fertilizer use in the UK over the last 40 years in relation to the P surplus calculated from detailed P budgets for UK agriculture in 1973, (15) 1993, (16) 2004 (17) and in 1990, 1995, 2000–2011. (18) Although different methodologies were used, the relationship around a 1:1 line remains the same. The actual regression equation for all data is also given.

    Figure 2

    Figure 2. Schematic diagram illustrating the components of a more sustainable approach to P management (Targeted P) compared to current strategies (Insurance P). The targeted approach would use less fertilizer, be more economic, enable lower soil P, and reduce eutrophication risk.

    Figure 3

    Figure 3. Schematic diagram showing the two main stores in the soil contributing P to the soil solution: native P which is very slowly released by weathering and the legacy P from previous fertilizer and manure applications that is more available for plant uptake. The portion of readily available legacy P typically extracted by soil testing (e.g., Olsen) and used to guide fertilizer use is relatively small (based on data summarized by Johnston et al. (19)). The portion of legacy P not extracted by soil testing is very large, not apparently used and could be better exploited. However, the direction of the dominant diffusion gradient (red line) will only be reversed if STP is allowed to decline (blue line).

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