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Meeting the global phosphorus challenge will deliver food security and reduce pollution

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“It is unacceptable that hunger is on the rise at a time when the world wastes more than 1 billion tonnes of food every year. It is time to change how we produce and consume, including to reduce greenhouse emissions,” says United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

The Secretary-General will convene a UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 to launch bold new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food, delivering progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

For decades, synthetic fertilizer – containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – has been used all over the world to increase crop yields. Plants need phosphorus to grow but using too much of it can harm the environment.

The global phosphorus cycle is broken, experts say – in some regions of the world too much phosphorus is being added to soils to grow food, contributing to nutrient pollution of lakes, rivers and coastal ecosystems. Elsewhere, farmers can’t access enough phosphorus to meet food demands. As the global population grows, the global phosphorus cycle must be re-mapped to ensure sufficient food for all whilst reducing costly environmental damage.

Where phosphorus use has been high, losses from agricultural land and through human waste have led to the pollution of fresh waters and coasts with excess nutrients, a process called eutrophication.

Humans are reliant on clean and safe freshwater and coastal ecosystems. They provide clean drinking water, protein and livelihoods to large numbers of people. So, preventing phosphorus pollution of these sensitive ecosystems is vital for sustainable development.

Eutrophication causes harmful algal blooms, which can now be viewed from space, and contributes to global scale biodiversity loss, oxygen “dead zones” threatening fisheries, and the contamination of drinking water supplies.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and others, such as the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management, are calling for better management of phosphorus for the benefit of people and planet.

Phosphate rock is the main source of easily accessible phosphorus for the manufacture of synthetic fertilizer and has been produced in large quantities since World War II. However, increasing phosphorus recycling from wastes has the potential to increase food security whilst also reducing impacts on the environment. 

“The signs of geopolitical constraints regarding phosphate rock reserves are already evident and are likely to be more intense in future,” says a study in the Journal of Cleaner Production. It warns that the combined impact of increasing demand, dwindling reserves, and geopolitical constraints could result in a substantial decline in the production and supply of chemical phosphorus fertilizer in the global market.

UNEP is involved in the Our Phosphorus Future project, coordinated by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK CEH). The project brings together experts from around the world to identify the key solutions for achieving global phosphorus security. 

“The scientific community is united on the need to address the global phosphorus challenge. As well as better farming and reducing and recycling wastes, food choice is a key solution. High meat consumption is a well-known driver of unsustainable nutrient use. The commitment of governments, consumers and industry in developing a more sustainable phosphorus future is key,” says Dr Bryan Spears, UK CEH.

Towards better management of phosphorus

UNEP and partners working on phosphorus pollution have come up with a number of priority actions that stand to address this complex problem:

  • Improve fertilizer and manure management, and minimize soil erosion, run-off and phosphorus (P) leaching to water; develop catchment management approaches to reduce P losses from agriculture and human wastes, with clear targets for reduction.
  • Develop infrastructure to recycle P from wastes; develop markets for recycled P products.
  • Optimize livestock and crop yields without additional P input and through better agricultural practices.
  • Minimize food waste to reduce P fertilizer demand and save money.
  • Reduce consumption of P intensive agricultural produce, (i.e., meat and dairy products): wider adoption of healthy diets with low to moderate amounts of meat and dairy could radically reduce demand for mineral P fertilizers and improve human health.
  • Raise awareness, transparency and political commitment to monitor, assess and act on P security issues.
  • Develop economic and regulatory policies that lower animal product consumption and waste production.

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Serving up sustainable food

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Along with a vow to return to exercise, upping personal intake of fruit and vegetables tops the list of New Year’s resolutions for many. But what if this year’s resolution didn’t end with the eating – and extended to reducing the amount of healthy, nutritious produce that gets trashed?

That’s a commitment that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is banking on to help achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Global estimates suggest that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. Those 1.3 billion tons of fruits, vegetables, grains and roots are lost through spillage or spoilage in the harvest-to-market chain, or to spoilage and discard once products hit retailers and, eventually, consumers.

In a world where malnutrition is a contributing factor to roughly 45% of deaths of children under age five in developing countries, and where consumption of highly processed foods is pushing obesity rates ever higher, remaining accountable to those New Year resolutions isn’t just personal – they’re critical for humanity.

They are also critical for the survival of the planet. Food production, consumption and waste – and how they impact the environment – will be a key topic of discussion at this year’s United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-5), taking place online on 22-23 February 2021.

UNEP and partners are developing the world’s most comprehensive data analysis and modelling on food waste, which will be launched at the Assembly. Titled the ‘Food Waste Index’, the document will be released at UNEA-5. It offers new estimates of food waste at household, retail and food service sectors at country level, and provides a methodology that enables countries to measure and track progress on Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which aims to halve retail and consumer food waste and reduce food loss by 2030.

Food systems for the future

Agriculture and the pressure to produce cheaper, faster commodities are among the primary drivers of biodiversity loss. Resource-intensive food production that depends heavily on the use of inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and complex irrigation and energy systems means fewer wild spaces for the other creatures we share nature with, whether it’s birds, mammals, insects or microbial organisms. Meanwhile, political and economic structures are pricing farmers off their land.

“The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the obstacles and blockages in our global food system. We have a timely opportunity to build back better and redesign the way we grow, harvest, sell and eat the bounty of nature’s production,” said Clementine O’Connor, from UNEP’s Sustainable Food Systems Programme.

Transforming our food systems will not only help restore biodiversity and habitat but can also strengthen market opportunities for smallholder farmers – many of whom are women on the road to economic self-sufficiency through sustainable production of fruit and vegetables.

A fruitful year?

At UNEA-5, the virtual convening of representatives of UN member states, the private sector, civil society, scientists and other leaders will be an opportunity to share and adopt best practices for transforming food systems. Momentum toward sustainable food production and consumption that is generated by the Assembly will be built upon going forward in 2021, with the historic first-ever UN Food Systems Summit.

The year 2021 has also been marked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables 2021 to highlight the role of fruits and vegetables in human nutrition, livelihoods, food security and health.

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2020, one of three warmest years on record

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The COVID-19 pandemic was not the only long-term crisis the world will remember from 2020. In terms of climate change, the year was also one of the three warmest on record, and rivalled 2016 for the top spot, the UN weather agency said on Wednesday. 

“The confirmation by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that 2020 was one of the warmest years on record is yet another stark reminder of the relentless pace of climate change, which is destroying lives and livelihoods across our planet”, said Secretary-General António Guterres

He pointed out that at 1.2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, the world is already witnessing unprecedented weather extremes in every region and on every continent.  

“We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century”, he warned. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere.”  

Powerful force 

La Niña, which began in late last year, is expected to continue into the early-middle part of 2021.   

“The exceptional heat of 2020 is despite a La Niña event, which has a temporary cooling effect”, said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.  

La Niña and El Niño effects on average global temperatures are typically strongest in the second year of the event. 

“It is remarkable that temperatures in 2020 were virtually on a par with 2016, when we saw one of the strongest El Niño warming events on record”, he added. “This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature”.  

The extent to which the continued cooling effects of La Niña this year may temporarily diminish the overall long-term warming trend remains to be seen.  

Following atypical patterns  

WMO pointed to sustained heat and wildfires in Siberia, diminishing Arctic sea ice and record-breaking hurricanes in the Atlantic as being among the climate events that most stood out in 2020.  

The UN weather agency also reminded that temperature is just one climate change indicator. Greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, global mean sea level, sea ice extent and extreme events are also factors. 

Backed by science 

WMO’s consolidated global temperature update incorporates information from five leading international sets of data.  

It also uses datasets that combine millions of meteorological and marine observations, including from satellites, with models to produce a complete reanalysis of the atmosphere.  

“The combination of observations with models makes it possible to estimate temperatures at any time and in any place across the globe, even in data-sparse areas such as the polar regions”, according to WMO.  

Looking to the future  

The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

However, the global average temperature in 2020 had already approached the lower limit of the temperature increase that the Agreement seeks to avert.  

Moreover, there is at least a one-in-five chance that the average global temperature will temporarily exceed 1.5 °C by 2024, according to WMO’s Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update, led by the United Kingdom’s Met Office. 

The 2021 Met Office annual global temperature forecast also suggests that next year will again be one of the earth’s hottest years.  

Updating its provisional December report, WMO will issue its final publication in March, which will incorporate temperature figures, information on all leading climate indicators and selected climate impacts. 

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Step up action and adapt to ‘new climate reality’-Report

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Though countries have made progress in planning for climate change adaptation, there are significant financing shortfalls in getting them to the stage where they provide real protection against droughts, floods and rising sea levels, a new UN environment report has found. 

According to the 2020 Adaptation Gap Report, released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as temperatures rise and climate change impacts intensify, nations must urgently step up action to adapt to the new climate reality or face serious costs, damages and losses. 

“The hard truth is that climate change is upon us,” Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, said in a news release announcing the findings. 

“Its impacts will intensify and hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest, even if we meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing 1.5 degree Celsius.” 

Global commitment needed 

Annual adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at $70 billion, but the figure could reach up to $300 billion in 2030, and $500 billion in 2050. Almost three-quarters of nations have some adaptation plans in place, but financing and implementation fall “far short” of what is needed, according to the UNEP report. 

Stepping up public and private finance for adaptation is, therefore, urgently needed. 

“As the Secretary-General has said, we need a global commitment to put half of all global climate finance towards adaptation in the next year … this will allow a huge step up in adaptation, in everything from early warning systems to resilient water resources to nature-based solutions,” Ms. Andersen added. 

Adaptation is a key pillar of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It aims to reduce countries’ and communities’ vulnerability to climate change by increasing their ability to absorb impacts.  

Nature-based solutions 

The UNEP report also underscored the importance of nature-based solutions as low-cost options that reduce climate risks, restore and protect biodiversity, and bring benefits for communities and economies. 

Its analysis of four major climate and development funds: the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Adaptation Fund, and the International Climate Initiative (IKI), suggested that support for green initiatives with some element of nature-based solutions has risen over the last two decades.  

Cumulative investment for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects under the four funds stands at $94 billion. However, only $12 billion was spent on nature-based solutions, a tiny fraction of total adaptation and conservation finance, it added. 

Cutting emissions will reduce costs 

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the impacts and costs associated with climate change, according to the report. Achieving the 2 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement could limit losses in annual growth to up to 1.6 per cent, compared to 2.2 per cent for the 3 degrees Celsius trajectory. 

UNEP urged all nations to pursue the efforts outlined in its December 2020 Emissions Gap Report, which called for a green pandemic recovery and updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that include new net-zero commitments.  

“However, the world must also plan for, finance and implement climate change adaptation to support those nations least responsible for climate change but most at risk,” the UN agency added. 

“While the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to hit the ability of countries to adapt to climate change, investing in adaptation is a sound economic decision,” it said. 

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