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A peek at peak P: Event looks at future of phosphorus, food

April 09, 2010

Bones, teeth and DNA all require phosphorus (P). P is a key component of the fertilizers used to produce our food. But is P, like oil, peaking?

Most people are unaware that our current use of the key nutrient element phosphorus is not sustainable. The Earth Day launch of the Sustainable P Initiative is ASU's solution-driven response to what might be called “the biggest problem you’ve never heard of.”

The public is invited to come mingle with experts and the elements April 22 at the Arizona Science Center, 600 East Washington Street, Phoenix, and join the discussion about the critical issues of P sustainability, food security and how to become be involved. The talk "phosphorus, food and our future" will be followed by a mixer. Seating is limited. RSVPs are required.

Architects of the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative at ASU are working locally and nationally to increase awareness and create a public forum for discussion and solution-building. The goals sought by scientists James Elser, Regents’ Professor and associate dean of Research and Training Initiatives in the School of Life Sciences; Mark Edwards, professor with the W.P. Carey School of Business, and Daniel Childers, a professor in the School of Sustainability and School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, are to, in partnership with other groups, help motivate change and design new technologies, conservation strategies, recycling measures, and agricultural and wastewater practices that will close the human P cycle.

This first step is to make most people aware of where P comes from. Phosphorus is mined and is a critical nutrient for plant growth, and, therefore, for food production. There is an emerging concern among scientists and others, however, that current practices are not sustainable for the long term due to decreasing geologic reserves of P (limited mines) and increasing demand for this nutrient for farming (high use) due to population growth, growing affluence and bioenergy production. In addition, runoff from urban and agricultural sites pumps P into waterways, creating ecological and economic damage, such as coastal “dead zones.” There are currently no international organizations, policies, or regulatory frameworks governing global P resources for food security.

Elser, the speaker for the event, is no stranger to P. His internationally recognized work focuses on the role of key chemical elements, such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. He focuses especially on P, with work that ranges from study of effects of excessive P inputs on lakes to the possible role of P in triggering the Cambrian explosion to its potential impact on the dynamics of human cancer. His innovative teaching approaches have impacted more than 12,000 undergraduate students at ASU, earning him recognition in 2009 from the Parents Association as “Professor of the Year.” Among other honors, in 2009 he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The science center event and mixer will offer opportunities for attendees to talk more with a range of initiative experts in agribusiness, ecosystem ecology, bioenergy and wastewater engineering, bioengineering of food crops, agricultural ecology and biogeochemistry. Hosts will include Bruce Rittmann, Regents’ Professor with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; Roberto Gaxiola, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences; Laura Turnbull, a research associate with the School of Sustainability; and Michelle McCrackin, a doctoral student in the School of Life Sciences.

This event is sponsored by the Arizona State University Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs, School of Life Sciences, Global Institute for Sustainability, and W.P. Carey School of Business.

To RSVP, contact or paste: in your browser. Seating is limited.

To learn more about this initiative or about phosphorus and its impact (P facts) visit