phosphorus crops rows

Most plants rely on help from microscopic fungi in order to glean as much phosphorus from the soil as possible.

Depending on its history, location, size and neighbors, each planet is often unlike the others around it.

We can see examples of this cosmic diversity in our own solar system, where Earth seems to have lucked into the right location with the right ingredients to generate life as we know it. Earth creatures are clearly engineered to live on this planet, with specific temperature, atmospheric and nutritional requirements that cannot be met by most planets.

While especially invasive species like humans can cause incredible changes to our planet, we cannot forget that throughout our entire history as a species we have been sculpted by the Earth as well. Even the way we store genetic information in our bodies relies on elements relatively common on Earth but hard or impossible to find elsewhere.

Phosphorous is one of these elements, and all of the organisms from this planet are tied together through their reliance on this powerful substance. Some of the almost endless ways earthlings use phosphorus include the construction of DNA, energy creation and storage, enzyme activation, pH balancing, bone growth and photosynthesis. In short, every living being that we know of desperately relies on an element that scientists believe is only formed in certain conditions in exploding stars.

Phosphorus is highly reactive to the things around it, and readily binds with a wide variety of other molecules to form different compounds. While the phosphorus in the cells of organisms is usually in a lonelier form, in the “wild” phosphorus is almost always bound into another relationship. This happens very quickly in the soil, for example, as depending on soil pH phosphorus is sponged up by aluminum, iron, calcium and other elements.

The plants in an area are constantly in search of phosphorus that has been “unbound” from these greedy elements through weathering and other methods. Most plants rely on help from microscopic fungi in order to glean as much phosphorus from the soil as possible. In a normal ecosystem, the phosphorus used by its living residents is constantly recycled as organisms die or relieve themselves, putting phosphorus back into the soil to be used by future creatures.

Unfortunately, agricultural practices since the end of World War II have trended towards growing plants in specific farmland areas and then shipping them off to distant locales to be eaten and, well, deposited offsite.

Many of the nutrients that would normally be recycled back into cropland soil end up leaving the property forever. Modern agriculture relies on large amounts of supplemental fertilizers to make up for this loss of nutrients.

As human populations and food requirements continue to grow in the future, this presents several problems. Most fertilizer phosphorus is mined from underground deposits in crystal form. A fervent debate about the richness and size of these deposits has been raging for years, with some sides warning of an imminent global shortage while others paint a picture of deep global pockets with new deposits constantly being created.

Even if the best case scenarios turn out to be true, it doesn’t take an expert to divine that most agriculture today utilizes an unsustainable fertilization method that requires constant fine tuning.

As large tracts of  and begin to rely on doses of phosphorus each year, significant amounts of the element are then in danger of being washed into nearby waterways, which can cause choking algal buildup and other environmental problems.

As agriculture is redesigned to become more sustainable in the long term both environmentally and economically, phosphorus use and recycling should undoubtedly be one of the first problems tackled.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.