ASU scientists gather in D.C. to tackle phosphorus sustainability issues

May 15, 2015

Researchers from Arizona State University, along with more than 40 other scientists, engineers, technical experts and policy makers from around the world, are convening in Washington, D.C., on May 18-21 to study ways to create a sustainable phosphorus fertilizer system.

The use of phosphorus, a key component of fertilizers, is increasing around the world. As a result, the runoff of phosphorus from farms and cities is creating noxious algal blooms, which often lead to "dead zones" in rivers, lakes and coastal oceans. Phosphorus runoff causes "dead zones" in many waterways. Download Full Image

Furthermore, the price of phosphate rock used for fertilizer production is increasing, and uncertainty surrounds the long-term reliability of these rock supplies, as they are distributed from just a few countries.

Many experts believe humanity's phosphorus use has already exceeded "safe boundaries" and are calling for solutions both to protect water quality and ensure long-term reliable supplies of phosphorus for fertilizer.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Research Coordination Network titled “Coordinating Phosphorus Research to Create a Sustainable Food System” is meeting for the third time. The research network, which started in 2013, is working together for five years in an effort to spark an interdisciplinary understanding of the phosphorus sustainability challenge.

This year’s stakeholder event, “The Future of Phosphorus,” will bring together some of the world’s top scientific experts, as well as leaders from industry, non-governmental organizations and the U.S. and foreign governments, to envision solutions for phosphorus sustainability.

The gathering is being held jointly with the organizational board meeting of the new North American Partnership for Phosphorus Sustainability (NAPPS), seed-funded by ASU. 

"It's clear that ASU, with its early support of the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative, has been a key driver in expanding interest in the global P [phosphorus] sustainability challenge. And now, the university is working to identify and accelerate innovations in the real world through the new NAPPS platform," said James Elser, Regents’ Professor with ASU’s School of Life Sciences and distinguished sustainability scientist with its Global Institute of Sustainability.

Four key areas of concern regarding phosphorus sustainability will be the focus of the event including: phosphorus recycling; phosphorus and agriculture; phosphorus demand in bioenergy and food; and phosphorus and water quality. Expert panels will provide a forum for participants.

After the discussions, researchers with the network will use the information to address critical phosphorus sustainability issues such as the accumulation of "legacy phosphorus" in global watersheds, the pros and cons of different phosphorus recycling technologies, and the political and institutional barriers that could slow the adoption of phosphorus sustainability innovations.

"In this stage of the [Research Coordination Network], we're really trying to move in a more interdisciplinary direction, bringing new perspectives to these difficult problems, so that novel solutions can be identified and quickly implemented," said Helen Rowe, assistant research professor with the School of Life Sciences and senior sustainability scientist with the Global Institute of Sustainability.

Some of the event’s highlights include:

• four expert panels on key areas of phosphorus sustainability

• keynote address on the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone" by Nancy Rabalais, 2012 recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award

• roundtable discussions on “real world” policy and information gaps, aimed at directing the emphases of upcoming research projects

The Research Coordination Network first focused its efforts on two challenges – improving phosphorus efficiency in food production and developing ways to recycle phosphorus.

After this event, issues raised during panel discussions will guide a transition of the research focus to innovative practices and technologies that integrate efficiency and recycling to create a sustainable fertilizer system.

Arizona State University is actively pursing phosphorus sustainability through its Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative, with scientists and engineers throughout the university participating in this interdisciplinary effort.

Led by researchers from Arizona State University, NAPPS is the North American equivalent to and an active partner with the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform (ESPP). NAPPS was created to promote and foster the implementation of sustainable phosphorus solutions in both private and public sectors in North America.

ASU School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU students create innovative solutions for childhood obesity challenge

May 15, 2015

Across the globe, obesity is growing at an alarming rate, especially among society’s youngest members. According to the World Health Organization, 42 million preschool-age children were overweight or obese in 2013, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegged more than one-third of U.S. children and adolescents as overweight or obese in 2012.

Because overweight children face an increased likelihood of entering adulthood obese and later developing serious health conditions, such as cancer and osteoarthritis, finding a way to halt the obesity trend in youth is a crucial public health concern. Ruben Garcia Download Full Image

Inspired by the Arizona State University Changemaker Challenge, Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions recently partnered with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ social sciences schools and the College of Health Solutions to sponsor a university-wide competition aimed at tackling obesity in children.

Challengers were asked to think globally and critically about the problem, taking into account that obesity is affected by environment, genetics, culture, socioeconomic status and education, among other factors.

The winning student teams – FantasyXRT, Nutritional Health Awareness and Partners in Empowerment – applied various perspectives and disciplines to generate creative solutions to key components of the obesity epidemic.

The FantasyXRT team focused on turning the tables on increasingly sedentary youth by using the very tools that often keep them indoors and in a chair. Ruben Garcia (kinesiology) and David Ballard (psychology) are creating a fantasy-sports gaming website and mobile app that use wearable technology to link participants to gaming action. Fantasy-sports privileges are earned through exercise done throughout the day and result in such perks as draft order, roster changes and salary caps.

Shovna Mishra (sustainability) and Kapila Patel (biological sciences) represented Nutritional Health Awareness, a student-led organization that matches college students as mentors with elementary school students. The goal is to instill health consciousness in children from an early age. The program engages kids in activities that reinforce healthy habits and provides learning experiences on health and exercise, specifically the connection between nutrition and preventable conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

The student group Partners in Empowerment uses a mentorship model to deliver support and services to sex-trafficking victims and at-risk youth, including the teen students at Phoenix’s Tumbleweed Youth Center. Team leaders Sierra Morris (global health and economics), Meera Doshi (biomedical engineering) and Samantha Flatland (nutrition/dietetics) plan to use the Challenge award money to build out the program to offer activities like cooking lessons and exercise programs to Tumbleweed youth.

“These winning teams are great examples of how students from diverse academic disciplines can combine their ideas to create interesting and inventive solutions to complex problems,” said Alexandra Brewis Slade, co-director of Obesity Solutions and director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

All of the teams have won additional honors for their work. Partners in Empowerment earned funding from the Clinton Global Change University Initiative, FantasyXRT took fifth place in a national competition and Nutrition Health Awareness received an award to study gut microbiota. Nutritional Health Awareness also won the 2013 Obesity Solutions Challenge.

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change