Phosphorus stories – 350th birthday celebration

Lancaster University hosted two public events this week to explore the history, benefits and challenges associated with our use of phosphorus

From an alchemist’s quest to ensuring a sustainable food supply, find out why we all rely on this precious element, and how we can use it more wisely.

Lancaster University hosted two public events this week to explore the history, benefits and challenges associated with our use of phosphorus, discovered accidentally 350 years ago by the German alchemist Hennig Brand in his unsuccessful quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.

All living things need phosphorus. Without it plants and animals can’t grow; it helps to form our bones and is part of our DNA. Indeed, we cannot grow our food without phosphorus and its most important use is in fertilisers. Phosphorus is also used in many everyday items, from matches and cleaning materials, to fire retardants.

But phosphorus is a finite resource, mined as phosphate rock in only a handful of countries, and we are using it up at an increasing rate. Some of the fertiliser we use to boost food production ends up in our watercourses in concentrations that impair water quality and can harm wildlife.

The #Phosphorus350 events aim to give the public an insight into this little known but vital element, and to bring experts together to discuss how we can improve ways to reduce, reuse and recycle phosphorus.

The events, organised jointly by the Lancaster Environment Centre, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and N8AgriFood, kicked off with Phosphorus Stories, a Café Scientifique at The Storey Institute in Lancaster city centre at 6.30pm on Tuesday 8 October. Scientists and other experts discussed their work with phosphorus in a relaxed atmosphere, with drinks and birthday cake to celebrate the anniversary. There was a short film about the local phosphorus cycle, alongside other artistic interpretations of how the phosphorus story plays out in the region, created by the Morecambe Bay Art and Craft Society.

The next day there was a symposium, A turning point in Phosphorus Stewardship, at the Lancaster House Hotel on the University campus. It explored phosphorus’s essential role in food production and its impacts on water quality, providing a platform for discussions about how we can make our phosphorus use more sustainable. One of the keynote speakers was Professor Jim Elser, who has travelled from the University of Montana, the Director and Founder of the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance, USA.

Professor Phil Haygarth, a soil and water scientist from the Lancaster Environment Centre, said: “Phosphorus provides enormous benefits for us in feeding the planet, but is also on a non-sustainable and damaging journey to our waters.

“It is less than a century since we started mining rock phosphate, but in the context of a 4.5 billion-year-old earth we are living through a switching point for the earth system. We urgently need to innovate systems to avert this and I hope the #Phosphorus350 event can help us.”

Professor Helen Jarvie, a water quality scientist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “Too little phosphorus threatens our food security. Too much phosphorus is a major cause of water-quality impairment worldwide. Our future food and water security will be increasingly dependent on our ability to better manage phosphorus. So, finding solutions to the ‘phosphorus paradox’ is of monumental significance for humankind.”

The film "Phosphorus: a local journey in a global cycle" is available on Lancaster Environment Centre's YouTube channel.

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