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More efficient phosphorus use can avoid cropland expansion


Global projections indicate that approximately 500 Mha of new arable land will be required to meet crop demand by 2050. Applying a dynamic phosphorus (P) pool simulator under different socioeconomic scenarios, we find that cropland expansion can be avoided with less than 7% additional cumulative P fertilizer over 2006–2050 when comparing with cropland expansion scenarios, mostly targeted at nutrient-depleted soils of sub-Saharan Africa. Additional P fertilizer would replenish P withdrawn from crop production, thereby allowing higher productivity levels. We also show that further agronomic improvements such as those that allow for better (legacy) P use in soils could reduce both P outflows to freshwater and coastal ecosystems and the overall demand for P fertilizer.

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Fig. 1: Relative contribution of area and productivity to total crop production.
Fig. 2: Cropland area and fertilizer use under each SSP.
Fig. 3: Mineral P fertilizer use assuming no cropland expansion.
Fig. 4: Differences in cumulative (2006–2050) mineral P fertilizer use (TgP) between the three SSP2 scenarios.

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We thank M. van Ittersum for stimulating discussions and constructive comments. J.M.M. received funding from the Dutch National Research Agenda, number NWA.1235.18.201. A.F.B. and A.H.W.B. received support from the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency through in-kind contributions to The New Delta 2014 ALW project no. 869.15.015 and no. 869.15.014. L.L. is supported by a Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO)-Spain and European Commission ERDF Ramón y Cajal grant (RYC-2016-20269) and Programa Propio from UPM, and also acknowledges MINECO (AgroSceNA-UP, PID2019-107972RB-I00).

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J.M.M., A.F.B. and L.L. designed the research. A.H.W.B. and J.M.M. performed calculations. A.F.B. and J.M.M. wrote the manuscript with contributions from L.L., H.J.M.v.G. and H.W.

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Correspondence to José M. Mogollón.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Philip Haygarth, Christian Levers and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Methods, Table 1 and Figs. 1 and 2.

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Mogollón, J.M., Bouwman, A.F., Beusen, A.H.W. et al. More efficient phosphorus use can avoid cropland expansion. Nat Food 2, 509–518 (2021).

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