Phosphoheaven or Phosphogedden?


Composite image showing a photo of a lake (left), the cover of a book (right) and the two authors of the book leaning over a farm gate (centre)

A readable new book tells the story of phosphorus, the vital element which both underpins our food supply and pollutes our watercourses, setting out how we might use it more wisely.

Phosphorus Past and Future delves into the origin, history and future of phosphorus, exploring emerging efforts to find ways to use this finite resource more sustainably.

Professor Phil Haygarth, from the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University, joins forces with his long-time collaborator Professor Jim Elser, from the University of Montana, to write this book for lay audiences. It charts our use and misuse of phosphorus, from its formation during the Big Bang and its discovery by alchemist Hennig Brandt 350 years ago, through its key role in the Green Revolution in food production which was powered by phosphate fertiliser and the phosphate-rock price shock which foreshadowed future shortages, to the current damage being done by phosphorus run off to the wildlife in our rivers, seas and lakes. It encompasses chemistry, history and systems thinking, bringing to life the people and events who have contributed to the Phosphorus story.

The Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance is hosting an online world book launch at 4.30pm on 23 February, where the two scientists will talk about their journey and why phosphorus matters so much and how we can all reduce our phosphorus footprint, before answering questions.

‘It’s a fascinating story and one that touches us all,’ says Phil, a soil and water scientist who is one of the world’s leading experts in phosphorus. ‘The big question for scientists now is how to balance the benefits of phosphorus with its dangers. There is a lot of work going on in this field, and we are optimistic that we can do this.’

‘Every adult human being has about 0.6 kg of phosphorus in their body at any given time,’ says Jim, an ecologist who heads up the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station and is director of the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance at Arizona State University. 

‘We really think everyone should know more about that! And how important phosphorus is to our food and water supplies and thus to our very survival. We need everyone on board with phosphorus sustainability and so we worked hard to bring this book to reality.’

The book, which is published in the UK by Oxford University Press on 1 March, has already had rave reviews from distinguished scientists around the world.

‘Elser and Haygarth are not only brilliant scientists, they are excellent storytellers. Phosphorus needed Jim and Phil to tell the inside story. This really is a book for everyone.’ says Dana Cordell, Research Director and Associate Professor, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney.

‘At a time when environmental concerns are dominated by carbon this book is a welcome reminder that the human interference in other biospheric cycles deserves no less attention,' says Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and author of Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made

‘Who thinks about phosphorus when they dig into a juicy sirloin steak? Elser and Haygarth bring the two together from the beginning of the universe (actually after the Big Bang) to the chunk of red meat on the plate,’ says Nancy Rabalais, Professor and Shell Endowed Chair in Oceanography and Wetland Studies in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University. 

Register for the book launch here.

Order the e-book or pre-order the print copy of Phosphorus Past and Future here.

Follow the book on social media on #thePbook

See Phil talking about his favourite element in this short film 'The Phosphorus Story'.

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