“My doctoral research at the Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan investigates the role of mobile molecules in the integration of root and shoot growth under mineral deficiency conditions.”
“Currently, researchers across multiple disciplines are looking for ways to optimize phosphate use in crop plants. Soil scientists seek ways to improve soil phosphate management, while plant biologists have intensified their efforts in understanding how plants can adapt to limited phosphorus.“
Scientists target international agriculture’s phosphate shortage
By Toluwase Olukayode Published: August 1, 2019
By 2030, the world’s population is projected to be about 8.5 billion people. Global food security is a major concern for governments — zero hunger is the second most important of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
However, there is a severe conflict between sustainable food production and the use of nonrenewable resources in agricultural systems, particularly phosphate. Phosphorus is a major mineral nutrient required by crop plants for optimal growth and productivity. Phosphate is the only form of phosphorus that plants can absorb — it is often applied to crops as phosphate fertilizer.
Seventy percent of the world’s phosphate reserves are located in North Africa. China, Russia, South Africa and the United States all have limited quantities of the mineral rock.
Scientists have reported that global phosphate production will peak around 2030, at the same time the global population will reach 8.5 billion people. Several reports have also warned that the global reserve would be depleted within the next 50 to 100 years.
A phosphate shortage could threaten global food production.
As well, plants can uptake only small amounts of phosphate, so much of it ends up in unwanted places, like bodies of water, making many agricultural practices ecologically and financially unsustainable.
And as phosphate becomes more expensive and more rare, it poses a food security threat, but could also spark political crises between phosphate-rich countries and importing countries.
My doctoral research at the Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan investigates the role of mobile molecules in the integration of root and shoot growth under mineral deficiency conditions.
Currently, researchers across multiple disciplines are looking for ways to optimize phosphate use in crop plants. Soil scientists seek ways to improve soil phosphate management, while plant biologists have intensified their efforts in understanding how plants can adapt to limited phosphorus.
It is already understood that when plants are starved of phosphate, they stop the growth of their primary root and grow more secondary roots and root hairs to increase their ability to absorb phosphate in soil with lower levels of the mineral. This strategy is referred to as changes in root-system architecture.
Another strategy is that during low-phosphate conditions, plants are able to remobilize stored phosphate to other parts of the plant to maintain growth and development. During this period, plants increase the expression of genes involved in phosphate uptake from the soil. In other words, more effort is committed to looking for and acquiring phosphate.
Advancements in genomics and biochemistry have helped us to uncover some of the genes and proteins that control these processes. However, some regulatory genes that control plant response to low phosphate are still unknown, making it difficult to breed crops that are well adapted to low amounts of phosphate.
This month, as reported in the journal Plant Physiology, an international team of scientists discovered a protein in plants that senses phosphorus levels in the soil and then tells the plant to adjust growth and flowering. The protein, called SPX4, tells the plant when it has acquired enough phosphorus and co-ordinates with the roots to stop uptake.
This discovery will help us to understand how plants can perform well even with limited phosphorus application.
Another research project published in the journal Cell identified a gene that regulates root-system architecture. Researchers showed that this gene modulates a plant hormone, ultimately regulating the depth of the root system.
The study of phosphate signaling in plants will ultimately help us to produce enough food for the growing population without having an adverse effect on the environment.
Government and funding agencies should support more fundamental and applied research that seek to understand how plants behave under low phosphate conditions.
Toluwase Olukayode is a PhD student studying at the Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan. This column first appeared on theconversation.com. It has been edited for length.
Phosphate mining under the microscope
News – International | 2019-08-29
VITAL … Phosphate is vital in chemical fertilisers used to grow food around the world. With a growing demand for food and a diminishing supply from traditional sources, fertiliser producers are looking for new sources. Photo: Scott Audette/Reuters
THE view from the sleepy town of San Juanico, Mexico, is about what you would see from any village along the Pacific Coast of Baja California — craggy coves, turquoise waves, a couple of surfers and fishing boats. But 40 kilometres offshore, there is something different.
The sediment at the bottom of the sea out there is rich in phosphate, a mineral form of phosphorus that’s vital to the rest of the world.
You cannot grow food without phosphorus, which is why this stretch of sea floor has drawn the attention of a group of Mexican and foreign companies. They want to dredge up the phosphate off of San Juanico and use it to make chemical fertiliser.
Most of the phosphorus used for fertiliser currently comes from phosphate rock on land, but those supplies are dwindling, and most of what’s left can be found in just two countries, Morocco and China. That has got a lot of people worried about a supply crunch and a cascading impact on global food supplies and prices.
“If phosphorus were to become more scarce,” says Dana Cordell of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative in Australia, “it’s likely that food prices could rise, and there would be more hungry [people].”
Hence the interest in undersea deposits like the one off San Juanico.
The mine would be the world’s first underwater phosphate mine. None of the companies involved would agree to an interview, but the project’s website says it would allow Mexico to cut its dependence on phosphate imports and strengthen the country’s food security.
Tough to argue with, perhaps, except among folks who are worried about this stretch of Mexico’s coast.
“Everything would be finished here,” says fisherman Juan Luis Aguilar. He has worked the waters off San Juanico for more than 30 years and is a member of a fishing cooperative that is trying to stop the mining project.
Aguilar fears that the dredging will harm fish populations and kill lobster eggs. He is afraid no one will want to come to San Juanico to surf or to see the whales that feed here. And, he says, “No one will want to buy our fish.”
Aguilar and his colleagues are not alone in their concerns. Scientists say there is a lot of risks involved in a project like this.
Biologist Jeanneht Armendáriz Villegas of Baja’s Instituto Politécnico Nacional, who studies mines in protected areas, says there are a lot of unknowns about drilling underwater, but some things are understood.
Phosphorous deposits often come with dangerous contaminants like uranium and cadmium, Armendáriz says. Plumes generated from dredging can affect whole aquatic ecosystems. And the ecosystem off San Juanico is especially important because it’s a refuge for a population of endangered loggerhead turtles.
Underwater mining proposals in other countries have been denied previously. In April, Mexico’s environmental agency SEMARNAT turned this one down too, specifically because of the threat to the sea turtles.
Since then, though, the project’s backers have revised their application to include plans to protect the turtles. That has opponents worried that the mine could ultimately be approved because the language establishing the turtle refuge does not explicitly exclude industry.
What it does mention is the possible impact of fishing on the turtles, which complicates things for local residents even more.
On a recent day in San Juanico, Aguilar and other fishermen were hauling in their nets, possibly for the last time. Researchers have found evidence that fishing nets may be responsible for a recent surge in turtle deaths in the area, so the fishermen were told to stay off the water for four months to see how the turtle population would respond.
Now the fishermen worry about an ironic outcome — that they might be pushed out of business, while the underwater mine is allowed to go ahead.
There’s another irony as well. If the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative’s Cordell is right, Mexico and the world may not even need this new source of phosphate.
Instead of digging for more phosphorus in sensitive places, she says we should focus on efficiently using the supply we already have.
“About 80% of the phosphorus we are using is lost or wasted,” Cordell says, but she adds that it does not need to be lost forever. “If we are smart, we can capture and recover that phosphorus for reuse.”
*This story was first published in PRI’s The World, in collaboration with reporter Celia Guerrero and Round Earth Media.