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World - What Can Be Done About the Phosphorus Crisis?

Global supplies of one of the main ingredients of fertilizer are running low, but researchers believe that restoring wildlife populations could help address the shortage.

When it comes to growing crops, fertilizer is a vital component. And when it comes to making fertilizer, phosphorus—a mineral crucial to living organisms—is often a key ingredient.

So what happens to the agriculture industry if phosphorus, of which stock is diminishing, runs out?

A new study, published in Science of the Total Environment and conducted by researchers at Northern Arizona University, suggests that looking to wildlife might be the answer to the shortage of the vital mineral.

Typically, phosphorus is mined from rocks. The mineral is then used as fertilizer, applied liberally to fields and crops across the world. But the phosphorus doesn’t stick around. Instead, it leaches from these fields and is whisked away by rivers and streams, eventually ending up in the ocean—often in deep ocean sediment that leaves the mineral out of reach.

The authors of the study explain that before humans dominated phosphorus’s transportation around the globe, it was originally animals, such as whales, seabirds, fish and even bears, that moved minerals around their ecosystems, returning it from sea to land.

“Animals are like a natural circulatory system for phosphorus,” said co-author Joe Roman, conservation biologist and researcher at the University of Vermont. “They can move nutrients through their carcasses, urine and dung.”

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