Birthday cake marks 350th anniversary of discovery of phosphorus  Picture: Anne Haygarth

Events to mark the 350th anniversary of the discovery of phosphorus have examined the chemical’s contradictory roles – as both a pollutant but also crucial for life and food production.

Organised jointly by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), Lancaster Environment Centre and food research partnership N8AgriFood, they offered the public an insight into this overlooked but vital chemical element, and brought experts together to discuss how we can use it more sustainably.

Professor Helen Jarvie, a water quality scientist at CEH, was one of the experts on a panel at a public event at Café Scientifique in Lancaster. Explaining how phosphorus was essential for the growth of plants, including crops, as well as animals, she said: “Phosphorus is rare and precious stardust, essential for life on earth. It forms our DNA, bones and cell membranes, and the basic currency of all metabolic processes.”

Phosphorus is primarily used as a fertiliser, and also in many everyday items, from matches and cleaning materials to fire retardants.

But the element can also have a negative impact, said Professor Jarvie. Some of the phosphorus within fertiliser used to boost food production and in wastewater effluent ends up in our watercourses in concentrations that encourage algae to grow, thereby impairing water quality.

Phosphorus is rare and precious stardust, essential for life on earth - Professor Helen Jarvie

Professor Jarvie also spoke about this paradoxical role the following day at a symposium at Lancaster University which brought together scientists, farmers and agri-food and water industry experts to discuss better ways to reduce, reuse and recycle phosphorus.

“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,” she said.

Other CEH speakers at the symposium were Dr Linda May, Dr Mike Bowes, John Redhead and Dr Will Brownlie.

Dr May highlighted the importance of long-term monitoring of lakes and rivers in tracking their recovery from high phosphorus levels and Dr Bowes spoke about the impact the chemical had on algae in UK rivers. Mr Redhead discussed his work creating national maps of estimated phosphorus fertilizer application, using CEH’s Land Cover Maps, and Dr Will Brownlie spoke about the ‘Our Phosphorus Future’ project, which he coordinates. Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), this project brings together scientific evidence to support policy development related to phosphorus.

Further information

A video looking at each stage of the phosphorus cycle, from a Lancashire perspective, is now available on YouTube. It has been funded by Lancaster University, CEH and N8AgriFood.


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