The science and statistics behind the phosphorus shortage.
- By James Elser<p> James Elser is Regents' professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and co-organizer of ASU's Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative. Stuart White is director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, and co-organizer of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative. </p> , Stuart White
Biogeochemistry: The scientific field that studies the distribution and cycling of chemical elements (such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus as well as iron and other metals) between living and non-living forms in the biosphere.
Phosphorus: The 15th chemical element in the classic Periodic Table. As a chemical element, it cannot be created or destroyed (except in exotic nuclear reactions long completed in the evolving universe). Its unique chemical properties, compared to other elements, give it an especially important role in biology.
Phosphate: The chemical form in which elemental phosphorus is most commonly found. In phosphate, each phosphorus atom is bonded to four oxygen atoms. Phosphate is present at relatively high concentrations in “phosphate rock”, the geological deposits that are mined in fertilizer production.
Nucleic acids: The molecules of genetic information storage (DNA) and processing (RNA). Essential to every living thing, nucleic acids have phosphorus as a key ingredient and indeed phosphorus contributes ~9% of the total mass of a nucleic acid. In turn, in a rapidly growing organism 15-20% of its total mass is contributed by its nucleic acids, especially its RNA. Thus, high yield crop varieties often have high phosphorus requirements.
Apatite: A calcium-phosphate mineral. Apatite is the primary form in which phosphorus is found in geological deposits. Apatite is also the chemical form of P in bones. Indeed, phosphorus represents 12% of the mass of skeletal bone tissue and bones make up ~10-15% of the (dry) mass of a large vertebrate animal, such as a human or a cow.
Haber-Bosch reaction: Energy-intensive industrial process that converts abundant N2 gas in the atmosphere to available chemical forms (ammonia). This process was invented by German and French chemical engineers in 1909 but not put into widespread use for fertilizer production until after World War II. It currently provides nearly all of the world’s nitrogen fertilizer and accounts for ~3-4% of the world’s annual natural gas consumption.
Eutrophication: Increases in blooms of algae and other microorganisms due to excessive inputs of limiting nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. When such blooms crash, subsequent decomposition consumes oxygen and contributes to the growing phenomenon of coastal “dead zones.”
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.| Passport |
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.| War of Ideas |