A Solution to the Phosphorous Problem We Didn’t Know We Had

Phosphorous is essential to all life forms, but the way we access it is not sustainable

We as humans consume a lot of resources. Of the natural resources we use on a daily basis, gasoline, coal, water, phosphorus, oil, and rare minerals are the six that are most over-used, and our consumption of these resources is completely unsustainable. So unsustainable, in fact, that scientists believe we will run out of them within the next 100 years. Many countries will face drastic water, gas, and oil shortages, as well. While I do not have the expertise to provide sustainable solutions to our over-consumption of all six of these resources, there is one resource that I can speak to: phosphorous.

The element phosphorus is essential for all living matter, including bacteria, plants, and humans. We get our phosphorus from the food we eat, which in turn comes from the phosphate fertilizers we apply to crops (phosphorous is one of the major additives in synthetic fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro). Phosphorous helps fruit and vegetables grow, so in this sense our use of phosphorous to keep the world’s food supply alive is beneficial.

However, the way that we mine phosphorous is completely unsustainable. Phosphorous is contained within rocks and is currently accessed by blowing up those rocks. Think about how crazy that is: We blow up rocks to get phosphorous! To top that off, there are only three countries in the world that have rock formations that contain phosphorous—the United States, China, and Morocco—so our supply of phosphorus is limited.

Blowing up rocks means that we are destroying irreplaceable mountain ranges like the Appalachians (yes, we are blowing up the Appalachian Mountains to get phosphorous). Then the phosphorous that is captured is added to a synthetic fertilizer that typically has such high concentrations of phosphorous that you end up burning the plants that you were intending to grow, thus defeating the purpose of using chemical phosphorous in the first place.

Another damaging effect of using synthetic fertilizers is that they kill the beneficial life in our soils, eventually rendering the soil infertile. So while phosphorous is a valuable nutrient for plant growth, there has to be a more sustainable way to make this nutrient available.

Thankfully there is a better way: by growing non-GMO, organic alfalfa meal as a cover crop. (It’s extremely important to grow organic alfalfa, as alfalfa is one of the most genetically modified crops in the world.) Cover crops are used as part of a successful organic management system and are grown solely with the intention of being killed in the late fall/early spring (depending on your winter weather patterns). Once you kill the cover crop, you dig it back into the soil so that the cover crop can break down and contribute the nutrients naturally found within it back to the soil. As alfalfa is rich in phosphorus, planting it as a cover crop is the perfect full-circle solution to maintaining a sustainable phosphorous source, especially as the alternative—blowing up mountains—causes dangerous chemicals to permeate our atmosphere and destroys the earth’s natural beauty.

Whether you are gardening in your homes, in a community garden, or elsewhere, keep in mind that by using chemical fertilizers you may be using phosphorus that was mined from our natural wonders. So rather than using a chemical fertilizer, plant a cover crop and the planet will thank you for finding a new, more sustainable way to get beneficial nutrients to your plants and crops.

Photo by Jake Laub 

Michael Forman is a native of Bronx, New York, and has lived in New York City for almost his entire life. He is the executive farm director of Pure Love Organic Farms, an organic, urban farm that he and three other friends created in 2012 from a former garbage dump site. Michael also works as the North American account manager for Totally Green in the sustainable technologies field.