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The phosphorus cost of agricultural intensification in the tropics

Nature Plants volume 2, Article number: 16043 (2016) | Download Citation


Agricultural intensification in the tropics is one way to meet rising global food demand in coming decades1,2. Although this strategy can potentially spare land from conversion to agriculture3, it relies on large material inputs. Here we quantify one such material cost, the phosphorus fertilizer required to intensify global crop production atop phosphorus-fixing soils and achieve yields similar to productive temperate agriculture. Phosphorus-fixing soils occur mainly in the tropics, and render added phosphorus less available to crops4,5. We estimate that intensification of the 8–12% of global croplands overlying phosphorus-fixing soils in 2005 would require 1–4 Tg P yr–1 to overcome phosphorus fixation, equivalent to 8–25% of global inorganic phosphorus fertilizer consumption that year. This imposed phosphorus ‘tax’ is in addition to phosphorus added to soils and subsequently harvested in crops, and doubles (2–7 Tg P yr–1) for scenarios of cropland extent in 20506. Our estimates are informed by local-, state- and national-scale investigations in Brazil, where, more than any other tropical country, low-yielding agriculture has been replaced by intensive production. In the 11 major Brazilian agricultural states, the surplus of added inorganic fertilizer phosphorus retained by soils post harvest is strongly correlated with the fraction of cropland overlying phosphorus-fixing soils (r2 = 0.84, p < 0.001). Our interviews with 49 farmers in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, which produces 8% of the world's soybeans mostly on phosphorus-fixing soils, suggest this phosphorus surplus is required even after three decades of high phosphorus inputs. Our findings in Brazil highlight the need for better understanding of long-term soil phosphorus fixation elsewhere in the tropics. Strategies beyond liming, which is currently widespread in Brazil, are needed to reduce phosphorus retention by phosphorus-fixing soils to better manage the Earth's finite phosphate rock supplies and move towards more sustainable agricultural production.

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Funding was provided to E.D.R. and S.P. by the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. L.A.M.’s contribution to this effort was facilitated by funding from CAPES and the Brazil Initiative at Brown University. Funding was provided to P.D.R. by a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in Interdisciplinary Research in Behavioral and Social Sciences (SPRF-IBSS)—NSF Award no. 1305489 (Brown University IRB approval no. 00000556). The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily the views and opinions of the United States Agency for International Development.

Author information


  1. Institute at Brown for Environment & Society, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • Eric D. Roy
    • , Peter D. Richards
    • , Stephanie A. Spera
    • , Leah K. VanWey
    •  & Stephen Porder
  2. Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont 05405, USA

    • Eric D. Roy
  3. Bureau for Food Security, United States Agency for International Development, Washington DC 20523, USA

    • Peter D. Richards
  4. Department of Isotopic Ecology, CENA, University of São Paulo, Piracicaba, São Paulo 13416-000, Brazil

    • Luiz A. Martinelli
    • , Luciana Della Coletta
    •  & Silvia Rafaela Machado Lins
  5. Department of Economics, State University of Mato Grosso, Sinop, Mato Grosso 78550-000, Brazil

    • Felipe Ferraz Vazquez
  6. Department of Earth, Environmental, & Planetary Sciences, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • Edwin Willig
    •  & Stephanie A. Spera
  7. Department of Sociology, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • Leah K. VanWey
  8. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • Stephen Porder


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E.D.R., S.P., P.D.R., L.V.W. and L.A.M. designed the study; E.D.R., P.D.R., L.A.M., L.D.C., S.R.M.L. and F.F.V. collected data for the study; E.D.R., E.W. and S.A.S. analysed the data; and E.D.R. and S.P. wrote the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Eric D. Roy.

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