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Half of global agricultural soil phosphorus fertility derived from anthropogenic sources

Abstract

The use of mineral phosphorus (P) fertilizers, often referred to as anthropogenic phosphorus, has dramatically altered the global phosphorus cycle and increased soil phosphorus fertility and crop yields. Quantifying agriculture’s reliance on anthropogenic phosphorus requires estimates of its contribution to agricultural soil fertility. Here we present a model of soil phosphorus dynamics simulating phosphorus availability in agricultural soils for individual countries from 1950 to 2017. Distinguishing between anthropogenic and natural phosphorus pools and accounting for farming practices, agricultural trade and crop–livestock recycling, we estimate that the global anthropogenic contribution to available phosphorus in agricultural soils was 47 ± 8% in 2017. Country-level anthropogenic phosphorus signatures vary according to cumulative fertilizer use and phosphorus availability in soil inherited pre-1950, with negligible influence of the trade of feed and food products. Despite different historical trajectories, we find that Western Europe, North America and Asia are similarly reliant on anthropogenic phosphorus, with nearly 60% of the total available phosphorus of anthropic origin in 2017. Conversely, anthropogenic phosphorus inputs in Africa remained low over the study period, contributing only around 30% of available phosphorus. The unequal reliance of agricultural soil fertility and food production systems on anthropogenic phosphorus resources highlights the need for a fairer management of the world’s remaining phosphate rock resources.

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Fig. 1: Structure of the model for a given country, with specific focus on soil P compartments.
Fig. 2: Anthropogenic signature of the labile P pool of agricultural soils in 2017.
Fig. 3: Temporal evolution of the anthropogenic signature of the soil labile P pool for eight contrasting countries.
Fig. 4: Temporal evolution of P inputs to agricultural soils over the 1950–2017 period.

Data availability

All data that support the findings of this study are archived on https://data.inrae.fr/privateurl.xhtml?token=4ddb8501-c41d-4ad6-8a09-5c1ebb8289f9. FAO national statistical data were obtained from https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/. Land-use data from HYDE 3.2 were downloaded at https://easy.dans.knaw.nl/ui/datasets/id/easy-dataset:74467/tab/2. Observed P-Olsen values for agricultural European soils were requested at https://esdac.jrc.ec.europa.eu/content/lucas2015-topsoil-data. Observed soil available P values for American and Canadian soils were downloaded from the soil test summary website of the Fertilizer Institute (https://soiltest.tfi.org/tables). For Tanzania, observed data of agricultural soil available P were obtained at https://registry.opendata.aws/afsis/. For Botswana and Yemen, observed data of agricultural soil available P were obtained from the ISRIC World Soil Information website (https://www.isric.org/documents/document-type/isric-report-201006-inventory-p-olsen-data-isric-wise-soil-database-use). Information on agricultural soil available P from Ringeval et al.3 was obtained following a request to the authors. Information on the use of mineral P fertilizer was obtained at https://doi.pangaea.de/10.1594/PANGAEA.863323. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The python code used for computing all calculations is available at https://data.inrae.fr/privateurl.xhtml?token=4ddb8501-c41d-4ad6-8a09-5c1ebb8289f9.

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Acknowledgements

All authors are supported by INRAE. The PhD of J.D. is also half supported by Arvalis Institut du Vegetal. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. K. H. Erb and S. Matej have provided insights on the best manner to deal with grassland productivity. R. McDowell, T. Bruulsema, N. Batjes, T. Hengl, G. MacDonald, M. Tella, J. Demenois and W. Wu have helped in finding real data for soil available P in agricultural soils.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

S.P., T.N. and B.R. initiated and supervised the work. J.D. coded the model. J.D. and B.R. collected data and performed the data analysis. Implications of results have been discussed by all four authors. J.D. wrote the initial draft, to which all authors provided critical contributions and approved the submission. All authors contributed to revising the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joséphine Demay.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information

Nature Geoscience thanks Julia Le Noé and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Xujia Jiang, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Cumulated application of mineral P fertilizer (CF) over the 1950-2017 period.

Data are provided for all the countries studied and expressed in kgP.ha-1. In hatched grey are countries for which we missed data: they were not studied. Base map for the plot is derived from the GeoPandas Python package28.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Temporal evolution of mineral P fertilizer application rates for the 1950-2017 period.

Data are shown for eight contrasting countries and are expressed in kgP per hectare of cropland and grassland soils.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 3 Cumulative inputs of phosphorus to agricultural soils over the 1950-2017 period.

Except for sludge, the figure differentiates anthropic vs. natural origin of phosphorus (P) inputs. The flux of P in manure (OF) was split in 3 categories: (i) P in manure that originated from the consumption of domestically produced feed (ii) P in manure that originated from the consumption of imported feed and (iii) P in manure that originated from the consumption of mineral feed. For clarity, we did not show the anthropic vs. natural origin of phosphorus embedded in sludge, although they have been considered in the model.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 4 Anthropogenic signatures of imported feed, food and of the labile phosphorus (P) pool over the 1950-2017 period.

Data on the anthropogenic signature of the imported feed were only displayed for the countries in which the contribution of soil P inputs coming from imported feed over the 2007-2017 period represented more than 5% of their total cumulative soil P inputs. Data on the anthropogenic signature of the imported food were only displayed for the countries in which the contribution of soil P inputs coming from imported food over the 2007-2017 period represented more than 4% of their total cumulative soil P inputs. For some years no data are displayed because the country studied did not import any feed nor food. Data on the anthropogenic signature of the labile pool (blue) are presented as mean (line) values ± SD (blurred zone). The n set of anthropogenic signature for each country is derived from running the model with all calibrated triplets.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 5 Trade effect on the anthropogenic signature of the soil labile phosphorus (P) pool.

Each figure displays the anthropogenic signature of the soil labile P pool over the 1950-2017 period, with and without trade of agricultural products. Data are presented as mean (lines) values ± SD (blurred zone). The n set of anthropogenic signature for each country is derived from running the model with all calibrated triplets. In green: results from the main computations, where the trade is considered. In purple: results from computations where the anthropogenic signature of all imported food and feed products was set to that of the importing country. Data are shown only for the countries where P embedded in imported food and feed products contributed to more than 5% of total soil P inputs over the 1950-2017 period.

Source data

Extended Data Table. 1 Cumulated use of mineral P fertilizer over the 1950-2017 period, for each large world region

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–23, Tables 1–7, details on methods and limitations of the work.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Power point file from which we built the figure.

Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 3

Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 1

Statistical source data.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 3

Statistical source data.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 5

Statistical source data.

Source Data Extended Data Table 1

Statistical source data.

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Demay, J., Ringeval, B., Pellerin, S. et al. Half of global agricultural soil phosphorus fertility derived from anthropogenic sources. Nat. Geosci. 16, 69–74 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-022-01092-0

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