Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Katherine Bourzac

A View from Katherine Bourzac

Shortage of Fertilizer Could Impact Food Security

You can add a coming phosphorus shortage to your worry list.

  • December 17, 2009

This week, while reporting a story on a new reaction that breaks nitrogen triple bonds, I talked to MIT chemist Christopher Cummins about fertilizer. It’s something we take for granted, but ammonia fertilizer feeds the world, and making it requires large amounts of energy and fossil fuels. In order to save on energy, chemists are working on enzymes that mimic bacterial enzymes to “fix” nitrogen into bioaccessible ammonia at low temperatures.

But nitrogen isn’t the only fertilizer we need to worry about, says Cummins. Modern agriculture is also reliant on phosphorus sourced from rocks and that is a non-renewable resource, like oil. According to a review published earlier this year in the journal Global Environmental Change, current global phosphorus reserves may be utterly depleted in 50-100 years, and production will peak in 2030. These resources are concentrated in Morocco, Chile, and the US, and, says Cummins, “many of the readily accessible mines have been used up.”

“Phosphorus is the least abundant of all the biogenic compounds,” he adds. “If you run out of one of those elements, you can’t make life.” With the global population expected to reach ten billion in 2050, this is likely to be a major problem unless these resources are managed better, starting soon.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Online Only.
  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.