publicationBuilding the Foundations for Sustainable Nutrient Management – a publication of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM)

Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are key part of delivering food security and sustainable development. However, excess use and inefficient practices leads to nutrient over-enrichment, causing soil acidification and groundwater pollution, harmful algal blooms and dead zones in the sea, and loss of coral and sea grass cover. There will be a growing cost to countries in terms of the degradation of valuable natural resources and the services and jobs they provide. This booklet is a crosscutting contribution to sustainable development and global advocacy for productive discussion and action by countries and their stakeholders.

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In this issue:

  1. The Nutrient Challenge

  2. A Global Partnership on Nutrient Management

  3. N2010: The 5th International Nitrogen Conference 3-7 December, 2010, New Delhi, India

  4. Reduction of nutrients leads to reduction in hypoxia 

  5. Nutrient Management Key To Hypoxia Reductions in the Danube-Black Sea Basin

  6. Phosphorus scarcity: a new global challenge for food security

  7. HELCOM launches full-scale efforts to rescue the Baltic



The Nutrient Challenge – David Osborne, Coordinator GPA

Human activity has greatly accelerated the amount of bio-available nitrogen and phosphorous across the globe, and their use has led to a complex web of development benefits and problems. While the availability of nutrients has been a driving force behind the green revolution and is a key part of delivering food security and sustainable development, excess use and inefficient practices can lead to nutrient over-enrichment, causing soil acidification, groundwater pollution, harmful algal blooms, aquatic hypoxia and the loss of key coastal ecosystems, such as coral and seagrass. As a result, coastal and marine ecosystems and the services and livelihoods they support are undermined and their resilience to climate change weakened.

Unfortunately these problems are set to intensify, as population, urbanization and food and energy demands increase. The ‘nutrient challenge’ of retaining benefits whilst minimizing negative effects needs to be addressed through comprehensive policy reforms, making the most of win-win opportunities across a broad spectrum of activity.

This edition of Blue Diamonds focuses on the importance and growing awareness of the nutrient challenge and its importance to global and local sustainable development. As land-based activities are the dominant source of nutrient overenrichment in coastal areas, the GPA Coordination Office is uniquely placed to raise awareness of these threats and draw together the relevant stakeholders to develop and promulgate solutions.

In this context, the UNEP GPA Secretariat has facilitated the coming together of policy makers, scientists, NGOs and the private sector in a Global Partnership for Nutrient Management (GPNM), launched at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (more information available in the first article on p 3).

The Partnership recognizes the need for strategic, global advocacy to trigger productive discussion on the nutrient challenge and how it needs to be met through:

  • a new focus on the sustainable consumption and production of nitrogen and phosphorous;
  • avoidance of unnecessary emissions, substantial shifts in efficiency of use, and re-use and recapture;
  • maximizing the contribution of nutrient management to global development, poverty reduction, and a low carbon society.

Additional articles in the newsletter highlight the efforts of stakeholders to address the nutrient challenge and further unpack some of the challenges we face. An article by Dr. Cheryl Palm and Dr. Manbir Sachdev will look into the recent activities of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) – a network of scientists that is a part of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) – such as the 2010 International Nitrogen Conference (N2010) held in New Delhi.

Controlling hypoxia in marine ecosystems is explored by Robert J. Díaz, Nancy N. Rabalais, and W. Michael Kemp, highlighting the need for an integrated management approach that considers the ecosystem as a whole, involving both land and coastal components and society.  A case study example by Chuck Chaitovitz on hypoxic impacts on the Danube-Black Sea Basin will also bring to light the importance of nutrient management and show how changes in human behavior and actions can improve the environment.

Phosphorus use patterns, and the associated affects, are considered in an article by Dr Dana Cordell, underlining the threat of phosphorous scarcity to food security and the need for an ultimate goal of sustainable phosphorus use.  The final article from HELCOM looks into nutrient pollution in the Baltic Sea and the potential role of the Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans around the world

Food for thought 

  • Managing nutrients efficiently is important to food and energy security, water quality and availability, biodiversity and fisheries, and climate change
  • It is estimated that the food security of half of the global population is dependent on fertilizer use. Yet much of the fertilizer is not actually absorbed by the crops, costing farmers and the environment
  • Human activities produce around 120 m tonnes of reactive nitrogen each year.  Approximately one third is used by the target plants, while the remainder makes its way into the air, water, soil, and coastal and marine ecosystems where adverse impacts can be severe and costly
  • Some 20 m tonnes of phosphorous (a finite resource) are mined every year and nearly half enters the world’s oceans – 8 times the natural rate of input
  • Many of the world’s freshwater lakes, streams, and reservoirs suffer from eutrophication
  • Millions of people depend on wells for their water where nitrate levels are well above recommended levels
  • Worldwide, the number of hypoxic coastal areas stands at over 500, covering 245,000 km2, undermining the contribution of marine  ecosystems to livelihoods and fisheries, and their resilience to climate change
  • More than 90% of the world’s fisheries depend in one way or another on estuarine and near-shore habitats and many of these habitats are vulnerable to the harmful effects of eutrophication and toxic algal blooms
  • In developing countries an estimated 90% of wastewater, a major source of excess nutrients, harmful to health and ecosystems, is discharged as untreated into waterways and coastal areas
  • Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas – estimated to be responsible on current levels for about 10% of the net anthropogenic global warming potential from such gases



A Global Partnership on Nutrient Management – Dr. Anjan Datta, UNEP, Chris Tompkins, Consultant GPNM

The Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) operates as a voluntary network of stakeholders, with a view to communicating the nutrient challenge, and helping to build constituencies of interest and action among and in countries, agencies and donors around the goal of optimising nutrient use, including in areas of nutrient shortage. The UNEP/GPA office in Nairobi provides the secretariat with a steering committee comprising representatives from around the world of governments, UN agencies and the scientific and research community.

The UNEP/GPA Coordination Office with support from governments and other stakeholders facilitated this Partnership building to address the underlying barrier to effective nutrient management. This initiative is a response to the call made by the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and the Intergovernmental Review meeting of the GPA held in Beijing in 2006, where participating governments identified nutrient over-enrichment as a priority issue and committed themselves to devote additional effort, finance and support to address point and non-point source nutrients at national level.

An initial focus of the Partnership has been to catalyse a new strategic focus among countries on nutrient management – a shared interest and agenda at the global level around why efficient use of nitrogen and phosphorous is important to global sustainable development and to the benefit of countries, and to communicate that information effectively to policy makers.

It aims to show how the main sectoral drivers involved in nutrient issues, such as agriculture, energy and wastewater, can be focused effectively on sustainable nutrient use and production, and how these approaches contribute to national goals such as  human and ecosystem health, water quality, a low carbon society, and to food security, including countries facing nutrient shortages.

Particular areas of action are to:-

  • encourage governments to incorporate effective nutrient management in agriculture and aquaculture in their policy, institutional and investment frameworks – nutrient proofing – the ways in which they seek to direct national goals and engage with sectors.
  • identify, and help mainstream best practice opportunities and win-win investments among governments and their stakeholders, including key user groups such as farmers
  • promote more integrated regional and global assessment of excess nutrient causes and effects to assist improved policy making
  • facilitate the development of regional and national nutrient management partnerships – constituencies of interest and action focused on more effective nutrient management.   This is already beginning to happen with moves to establish regional nutrient management platforms in India, Asia and Africa supported by parallel efforts on regional nutrient assessment

Key messages from the GPNM are that:

  • There are economic costs to the country in terms of the excess nutrients contributing to degradation of valuable natural resources and the services and jobs they provide

  • Win-win investment opportunities exist across most sectors and user groups : for example, re-use of wastewater for agriculture, savings from more efficient nutrient use, and direct benefits such as more income for farmers from better use of fertilizer, and to fishermen from less damage to fisheries from pollution
  • Cost effective tools and information are available so that improvements can be identified, realized and scaled up.


N2010: The 5th International Nitrogen Conference 3-7 December, 2010, New Delhi, India – Dr. Cheryl Palm, Chairperson International Nitrogen Initiative, Dr. Manbir Sachdev, Coordinator N2010, Professor Yash Paal Abrol President Indian Nitrogen Group

The International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) is dedicated to optimizing the use of nitrogen in food production, while minimizing the negative effects on human health and the environment as a result of food and energy production.

One key INI activity is the organization of International Nitrogen Conferences, which bring together the global community of scientists and policy makers who are working on different aspects of the nitrogen cycles. International Nitrogen Conferences were successfully organized in 1998 in Netherlands, 2001 in United States, 2004 in China, 2007 in Brazil; and in 2010, the conference was held in Delhi, India.

India was chosen as the venue for the International Nitrogen Conference (N2010) for a number of reasons.  First, it is facing a range of nitrogen challenges: achieving food and energy security for a rapidly growing population and developing strategies for minimizing the negative impact of excess nitrogen in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Second, India has an internationally recognized and dedicated group of scientists working on nitrogen issues (ING-SCON). In 2008, the INI established a South Asian Nitrogen center in India to create a South Asian network of relevant stakeholders, coordinate activities regarding reactive nitrogen research and develop knowledge, technologies and policy options for optimizing the use of nitrogen in the region with minimal negative consequences. For these reasons, India is an obvious choice to host the international conference that will address various aspects of the nitrogen cycle, ranging from natural, applied sciences and engineering, to policy, development and social science.

The N2010 meeting addressed five general categories of opportunities and threats of the changing nitrogen cycle, each in a separate session:

  • Climate Change;
  • Food Security;
  • Energy Security and Industry;
  • Human Health;
  • Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity; and
  • A sixth session will integrate all five pillars and aim to inform policy analysts and to present plans to develop a Global Nitrogen Assessment, drawing on the outcomes of the regional nitrogen assessments.

The INI regional centers are making substantial progress with their nitrogen assessments, and this was presented to a broader audience during N2010. The European Nitrogen Assessment is in its final phases (due for publication in 2011), while the South Asian and African Nitrogen Assessments are now getting started. A first meeting to develop a plan for a North American Nitrogen Assessment took place in May 2010, with the regional authorization process now developing for the US Nitrogen Assessment.

In 2009, INI established a strong partnership with Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) to benefit from their more political dimension, which complements the INI’s scientific role.  The GPNM platform has helped place INI efforts for global and regional assessments as part of the overall approach for meeting the challenge of managing nutrients more sustainably. At N2010, a special session consisted of the second meeting of GPNM partners, including INI.

The INI will be working as part of the GPNM and its UNEP/GPA secretariat in Nairobi to follow up on the outcomes of the Delhi Conference.

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Reduction of nutrients leads to reduction in hypoxia – Robert J. Díaz, Virginia Institute of Marine Science; Nancy N. Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium; W. Michael Kemp, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences

Figure 1: The growing trend of coastal hypoxia (Red Dots) around the globe. The association of hypoxia with human population centers in the northern hemisphere is strong. Redder land areas indicate higher levels of human impact. The 1960s marked a point where the number of hypoxic systems started to double about every 10 years. By the end of the 1990s most coastal systems close to population centers were affected by hypoxia. There are now over 500 systems globally. Reports are starting to emerge from the southern hemisphere but data from India and Asia are slow to emerge. Given the close association of population and hypoxia in the northern hemisphere, there must be many systems with hypoxia yet to be reported.

Over the last 50 to 60 years we have witnessed an unprecedented increase in the development of low dissolved oxygen conditions called hypoxia (less than 2 mg O2 per liter of water) in marine waters.  There has been an expansion of hypoxia from heavily populated city centers in historic times to our coastal areas in modern times.  The linkage of population, nutrients, eutrophication, and hypoxia is well established in the scientific literature.  Synthesis of literature pertaining to hypoxia and anoxia reveals that the oxygen budgets of many major coastal ecosystems have been adversely affected (Figure 1).

hypoxia1hypoxia2hypoxia3Many ecosystems that are now severely stressed by hypoxia may be near or at a threshold of change or collapse (loss of fisheries, loss of biodiversity, alteration of food webs), which in turn will stress ecosystem services that contribute to a decline in human well-being.  But the news is not all bad.  Through well-planned and executed management programs directed at reducing the nutrient and organic matter loads into coastal areas, hypoxia can be reduced and eliminated and ecosystem services restored.  Management programs directed at controlling industrial and municipal discharges from population centers have reduced carbon loads and nutrient enrichment, which in turn has reduced eutrophic conditions and reduced hypoxia (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Locations of systems that have recovered from hypoxia plotted over the Global Human Footprint ( Redder land areas indicate higher levels of human impact. For coastal areas documented reduction in hypoxia have been observed in 50 systems from management of point discharges (Green Dots). Only one system has improved from reduced non-point sources of nutrients, primarily form agriculture, the northwest continental shelf of the Black Sea (Red Dot). Water quality improvements have come in the Northern hemisphere primarily for concerted management efforts to control point discharges. Most improvements have been in rivers, estuaries, and enclosed bays where point discharges from industrial and municipal outfalls have been reduced and cleaned up. For coastal areas, managing impacts from agriculture (non-point sources of nutrient pollution) is going to be much more challenging than managing point sources (as from wastewater treatment facilities, for instance).

Nutrient reduction requires knowledge of local environmental conditions and diagnosis of main sources.  In the United States, the success of the Clean Water Act of 1972 at improving water quality and reducing hypoxia in freshwater systems was directly related to understanding local environmental conditions and nutrient/organic sources.  The Water Framework Directive strives to do the same for European waters.  To deal effectively with issues in coastal systems it is clear that an integrated, cross-sector land and coastal management will need tobe developed. The U.S. Clean Water Act deals well with point source discharges, but not well with nonpoint discharges. The Water Framework Directive addresses both.

A particularly important example of a large system that has recovered from hypoxia is the north-western continental shelf of the Black Sea.  More information about this system and how it has been managed is detailed in the article on page 7.


Extending the success of controlling hypoxia in large marine ecosystems (and the regional subsystems that comprise them) will require an integrated management approach that considers the ecosystem as a whole, involving both land and coastal components and society.  Prevention and long-term remediation of hypoxia can be achieved by reducing excess nutrients (especially N and P) entering the coast from the land and atmosphere.  An integrated effort to synthesize case-specific knowledge on how hypoxia varies with external drivers and internal ecological conditions could be used to identify effective solutions to regional problems of expanding hypoxic zones.

Further Reading:

Díaz, R. J., and Rosenberg, R.: Spreading dead zones and consequences for marine ecosystems, Science, 321, 926-929, 2008.

Kemp, W. M., Testa, J. M., Conley, D. J., Gilbert, D., and Hagy, J. D.: Temporal responses of coastal hypoxia to nutrient loading and physical controls, Biogeosciences, 6, 2985–3008, 2009. (Open Access)

Mee, L. D.: Reviving dead zones, Scientific American, November 2006, 80–85, 2006.

Rabalais, N. N., Díaz, R. J., Levin, L. A., Turner, R. E., Gilbert, D., and Zhang, J.: Dynamics and distribution of natural and human-caused hypoxia, Biogeosciences, 7, 585–619, 2010. (Open Access)

Sanderson, E. W., Jaiteh, M., Levy, M. A., Redford, K. H., Wannebo, A. V., Woolmer G.: The human footprint and the last of the wild, BioScience 52, 891-904, 2002.

World Resources Institute (WRI). (In Preparation). Eutrophication and hypoxia web resources. To be launched in late 2010.



Nutrient Management Key to Hypoxia Reductions in the Danube-Black Sea Basin – Chuck Chaitovitz

Hypoxia is a Growing Global Challenge

Hypoxic “dead zones” of low oxygen have increased almost nine times since 1969, as highlighted by Diaz et al. in the previous article.  There is widespread scientific agreement that changes in the global nitrogen cycle and increased nutrient loading, primarily caused by non-point source pollution (i.e. agricultural activities and storm water runoff) are directly linked to these “dead zones” and other significant impacts on our water resources, including:

  • Nuisance levels of algae and aquatic vegetation;
  • Reduced penetration of light;
  • Increased turbidity – sight feeding fish, aesthetics, water safety, limits growth of submerged aquatic vegetation, impairment of fisheries and habitat degradation;
  • Low levels of dissolved oxygen,  high levels of ammonia; results of organic decomposition;
  • Increased drinking water treatment costs – formation of disinfection by-products (e.g., THMs (trihalomethanes)) in drinking water, taste and odor effects of algae
  • Imbalance of aquatic species;
  • Shifts in the structure of the food chain;
  • Toxic algae and cyanobacteria (blue green algae).

There have been numerous studies and projects in Central and Eastern Europe to directly address the reduction of point and non-point sources of nutrient pollution, and confront the transboundary or national challenges present in the identified nutrient “hotspots.”   Despite regulatory and legal enforcement of point sources across the region, such nutrient pollution remains high.  Therefore, more must be done to address nutrient pollution from non-point or diffuse source discharges.


  Figure 3 – Sample Sources of Nutrients in the Danube-Black Sea

Hypoxic Impacts on the Danube-Black Sea Basin

Starting in the 1960s, nitrogen and phosphorus levels from agriculture, municipal and industrial sources started to seriously degrade the Black Sea ecosystem, disrupted fisheries, reduced biodiversity, posed threats to humans and resulted in billions of dollars of losses to the economies of the six Black Sea littoral countries.  Nutrient and toxic pollution from the 17 countries comprising the Danube River Basin, which flows into the Black Sea, created many of these threats to water quality in the region.  Based on available scientific assessments and findings of the Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis, the overall yearly input of nutrients from human activity amounts to 758,000 tons of nitrogen and 68,000 tons of phosphorus.  These estimates included also the river discharges.  The specific sources of recent nutrient loading are shown in figure 3 below.


 Figure 4 – Sample Impact: Investment Fund for Nutrient Reduction

Nutrient Management Matters

The North West Shelf of the Black Sea is showing remarkable signs of recovery.  Measurable improvements have been observed in the ecosystem, including increases in the number of benthic species and complete elimination of the hypoxic zone from 1991 to 2001.  The challenges of hypoxia in the Black Sea and how they have been solved can serve as a shining example of how changes in human behavior and actions can improve the environment.    This optimism must, nevertheless be tempered with the knowledge that at least some of the reduction in nutrients in the basin can be attributed to the economic decline in the region.

At the same time, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) invested in several regional partnerships and eleven single country projects to address nutrient pollution.

As a result, the Black Sea coastal states have continued to make profound progress in developing and enforcing legislative and regulatory tools in accordance with the main principles of the Black Sea Strategic Action Plan.  They also implemented pilot demonstrations for nutrient reduction in the agriculture, municipal wastewater and industrial sectors and managed to allocate national financial resources although still scarce and insufficient.

The projects are targeting annual nutrient reductions of 15,645 tonnes of nitrogen and 5,050 tonnes of phosphorous.  With GEF investments of almost $100 million accompanied by $400 million of co-financing and European Union supported infrastructure, this experience can provide a strong model for reducing “dead zones” across the globe.

Figure 4 shows the nutrient reduction targets of the core GEF investment – the $65 million World Bank – GEF Investment Fund for Nutrient Reduction.

Figure 5 – Nutrient reduction trends in the Danube Basin

Solution Example – The Danube Regional Project

The Danube Regional Project (DRP) was established as a component of the Global Environment Facility’s strategic partnership on nutrient reduction in the Danube/Black Sea Basin. The GEF invested more than $17 million to reduce nutrient loading into the Danube River and its tributaries and to improve water quality in the Danube and the Black Sea. The project is designed to complement the activities of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River and undertook approximately 180 basin activities in addition to 130 national and regional small grant projects.

The DRP has assisted countries in introducing new approaches (e.g. Best Agricultural Practices (BAPs) and Best Available Techniques, (BATs)) that are intended to reduce impacts as economic conditions improve. These are highlighted on the next page.

Approaches developed under the Danube Regional Project (DRP)

The following best agricultural practices and experiences were developed under the DRP:


  • All farms larger than 5 hectares and/or 5 animal units should calculate their resource economy every year by April 1 of the preceding year and covering at least the resource economy for nitrogen and phosphorous

Crop production systems

  • Every farm with at least 5 hectares of arable crops should ensure soil sampling at least every 5 years.
  • Crop rotation and fertilizing plans should be prepared every year for all farms larger than 5 hectares, with the finishing date no later than March 31 (or August 1 for winter crops).
  • Fertilizing plans should be based on the expected yield level and the needs of the crops, and include both livestock manure and mineral fertilizer.

Livestock production systems

  • Livestock should be fed with rations that are correctly balanced with energy, protein and minerals in relation to productivity.
  • Cleaning of stables with water should be avoided or reduced to a minimum.
  • Watering of the livestock should happen in a way that hinders spill of water.

Livestock density

  • Livestock numbers should be limited to ensure that nitrogen content in the manure is no more than 170 kg/ha. Manure should be sold to other farms or distributed to fields of other farms in case of a higher livestock density.

Livestock manure management

  • There should be storage capacity for at least six months production of livestock manure at the farm. Production systems with use of bedding material need storage capacity for both liquid and solid manure. Production systems with deep bedding can store the manure on the field for up to six months if the manure has a dry matter content of minimum 30%.
  • Farmers should limit the extent that rain water dilutes livestock manure.
  • Spreading of manure from October 15th to March 1st should not take place, particularly not on frozen land or land with a slope of more than 7 degrees.
  • Proper technology should be used for spreading livestock manure. Liquid manure and slurry should be spread with a band-laying system or be injected into the soil.
  • Livestock manure should be incorporated into the soil within six hours.


Phosphorus scarcity: a new global challenge for food security – Dr Dana Cordell, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney; Co-founder, Global Phosphorus Research Initiative

Phosphorus is essential for producing food. Yet today’s phosphorus use patterns have led to a situation where we are rapidly depleting our main source of phosphorus in addition to contributing towards a global environmental problem of eutrophication. Given the importance of phosphorus to our very existence, it is perhaps surprising that until recently there has been very little awareness, research and policy dialogue regarding how we will ensure long-term availability of and accessibility to phosphorus to meet the nutritional needs of a growing world population.

phosphorousPhosphate rock, like oil, is a non-renewable resource that took around 10-15 million years to form and approximately 50-100 years remain of current high quality reserves. However, long before all reserves are exhausted, phosphate rock production will reach a peak, constrained by the energy and economics of extracting lower quality and less accessible rock. Peak phosphorus is estimated to occur by 2035, after which demand will exceed supply. A recent preliminary study by IFDC suggests there is substantially more phosphate rock than previously thought (albeit of lower grade and accessibility), however this only pushes the peak phosphorus timeline further several decades. Thus it would ‘buy time’, but the threat of peak phosphorus this century still looms.

Whilst there is a vigorous debate today around the lifetime of phosphate rock reserves and the timeline of peak phosphorus, there is general consensus that the remaining phosphate rock contains less phosphorus and more contaminants and is more difficult to physically access (e.g. deeper rock, under the sea floor, in environmentally or culturally sensitive areas). More energy will be required to extract and produce phosphate fertilizers. Refinement and transport costs will increase and cheap phosphorous based fertilizers will become a thing of the past in the long-term. Further, unlike oil, there is no substitute for phosphorus when it becomes scarce or expensive. Nearly forty years ago, chemist and science writer Isaac Asimov described phosphorus as “life’s bottleneck”: ‘We may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal, and plastics for wood, and yeast for meat, and friendliness for isolation—but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement’.

Historically, crop production relied on natural levels of soil phosphorus with additions of organic matter like manure and human excreta in parts of Asia. However rapid population growth and food demand in the 20th Century led to a search for external sources of phosphorus fertilisers, including phosphate rock and guano (bird droppings) (see figure 6). The use of chemical N-P-K fertilizers contributed to feeding billions by boosting crop yields between 1950 and 2000.

Feeding 9 billion people in 2050 is likely to require a substantial increase in phosphorus use. While phosphorus demand in some developed countries is stabilizing and pollution is the major environmental problem associated with phosphorus, demand in developing and emerging countries is rapidly increasing due to population growth and diets increasingly changing towards more phosphorus-intensive foods such as meat and dairy products. Phosphorus demand is also increasing due to growth in the production of non-food crops such as biofuel crops. Further, many poor farmers (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa) currently do not have the purchasing power to access fertilizer markets despite having phosphorus-deficient soils. This has led not only to low crop yields, but also increasing losses due to soil erosion, low farmer incomes and increased hunger.

While farmers around the world can benefit from access to phosphorus fertilizers, just five countries control around 90% of the world’s remaining reserves, including Morocco, China and the US. Such a concentration of reserves can lead to short or long-term geopolitical scarcity. Further, in a carbon-constrained future, transporting tens of millions of tonnes of phosphate rock and fertilizers around the globe by ship, rail and truck may not be feasible.

Averting a major phosphorus scarcity crisis is possible. However it will require considerable political will and substantial changes to our current physical infrastructure and institutional arrangements. The current use of phosphorus in the food system is enormously inefficient: approximately four-fifths of the phosphorus mined specifically for food production never actually reaches the food on our forks. It is lost at all key stages of the production and consumption chain: during mining, fertiliser processing and application in agriculture, crop uptake, food processing, food waste and consumption by humans and animals. Unlike oil, phosphorus is not destroyed once used; hence it can be recovered before dissipating into water bodies.

This means there are substantial opportunities to recover phosphorus from human excreta, food waste, manures and organic material for productive reuse as fertilizer; to develop phosphorus demand management strategies to improve the efficient use of phosphorus during fertilizer production, farm application as well as strategies to reduce food processing losses and to consider more phosphorus-efficient diets. However, there is no single solution to securing phosphorus for global food security in the long-term – multiple approaches that respond to local and regional contexts will need to be employed. In our urine and faeces alone we generate around 3 million tonnes of elemental phosphorus each year, which typically ends up in waterways if not intentionally recovered. Indeed, urine is essentially sterile and the World Health Organisation has published guidelines on the safe reuse of human excreta in agriculture and aquaculture. Some Swedish councils now mandate urine-diverting toilets in new developments to recover phosphorus and nitrogen while Canadian research has led to commercial scale recovery of struvite pellets (magnesium-ammonium-phosphate) from wastewater for use as fertiliser and other industrial applications.

Despite the threat of phosphorus scarcity to food security, there are no concerted international or national strategies, policies or institutional arrangements specifically designed to address and manage long-term phosphorus availability for food production. An ultimate goal of sustainable phosphorus use might be to ensure all the world’s farmers have sufficient access to phosphorus to grow enough food to help feed the global population, whilst minimizing adverse environmental and social impacts. Achieving this will require new and integrated governance structures at the international and national levels, new partnerships between the fertilizer and sanitation industries, technological innovations and incentives to both substantially increase efficient use of phosphorus from mine to field to fork and to invest in phosphorus recovery and renewable phosphorus fertilizers.

Further Reading

Cordell, D., Drangert, J.-O., and White, S., (2009) The Story of Phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought. Global Environmental Change, 2009. 19(2): p. 292-305

Global Phosphorus Research Initiative


Helsinki Commission launches full-scale effort to rescue the Baltic – Anne Christine Brusendorff, Executive Secretary, Helsinki Commission (HELCOM)

Nutrient pollution in the Baltic Sea has remained a serious problem and an important political issue since the late 1980s when HELCOM environment ministers set the 50% reduction target for nutrient inputs. The results of all recent assessments regarding nutrient load reductions show much has been achieved in reducing loads from point sources such as municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants. Almost all of the coastal countries have managed to reach the target of a 50% reduction in phosphorus loads from point sources. However, the results also indicate that measures taken to reduce nutrients originating from agriculture have fallen short of their 50% reduction target.

The latest available data indicates an overall reduction in nutrient pollution loads entering the Baltic Sea as a whole. Some countries have made significant progress towards their provisional nutrient pollution reduction targets. But the overall situation is still unacceptable. Excessive loads of nitrogen and phosphorus from land-based sources still lead to an excessive growth of algae and the spread of lifeless sea bottoms in most of the Baltic Sea’s sub-basins.  The situation shows that we need to react urgently and apply the pollution reduction measures specified in the overarching HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan to radically reduce pollution to the Baltic Sea and restore it to a good ecological status by 2021. It sets a strategic target of achieving a good ecological status of the Baltic Sea – a sea with diverse biological components functioning in balance and supporting a wide range of sustainable human economic and social activities.

One of the major highlights of the plan is that it opens a new era in marine environment protection by including the concept of maximum allowable nutrient input, which still makes it possible to reach good ecological status of the Baltic Sea. It also contains provisional country-wise annual nutrient input reduction targets for both nitrogen and phosphorus, pollutants that are responsible for the continuing degradation of the Sea.

HELCOM has estimated that for good environmental status to be achieved, the maximum allowable annual nutrient pollution inputs into the Baltic Sea would be 21,000 tonnes of phosphorus and about 600,000 tonnes of nitrogen. Over the period 1997-2003, average annual inputs amounted to 36,000 tonnes of phosphorus and 737,000 tonnes of nitrogen.  Therefore HELCOM countries have agreed to jointly reduce the input of some 15,000 tonnes of phosphorus and 135,000 tonnes of nitrogen in order to reach the plan’s crucial “clear water” objective (HELCOM 2007).

This will be done mainly through better wastewater treatment around the region and measures preventing excessive pollution loads from agriculture.

In order to diminish nutrient inputs to the Baltic Sea to the maximum allowable levels by 2021, the HELCOM countries have agreed to take actions no later than 2016 to reduce nutrient loads in waterborne and airborne inputs. The action plan duly proposes provisional country-wise nutrient input reduction targets for both nitrogen and phosphorus (see Table 1).

To reach planned reduction targets, the Baltic Sea countries have developed their National Implementation Programmes, which were presented at the HELCOM Moscow Ministerial Meeting in May 2010. They are designed to achieve the required reductions included in the Baltic Sea Action Plan. Each country has been given enough flexibility to choose the most cost-effective measures. At the same time the National Implementation Programmes will be measured against the holistic assessment on the state of the Baltic marine environment, which was also presented at the Moscow Ministerial Meeting.

The HELCOM countries will also implement specific measures to improve the treatment of wastewater, including increasing phosphorus recovery from 80% to a planned 90%, and substituting phosphorus in detergents. These measures alone will reduce phosphorus inputs into the Baltic by 6,700 tonnes, almost half of the total required reduction.

The implementation of the action plan will also include the identification of individual pollution hot spots such as major facilities for the intensive rearing of cattle, poultry and pigs, where actions should be prioritised in order to comply with revised requirements for prevention of pollution from agriculture (Annex III of the 1992 Helsinki Convention).     Accordingly, a more stringent system of environmental permits for livestock facilities based on their environmental performance and Best Available Techniques (BAT) shall be applied for large installations, with a simplified approach for smaller units also introduced.


 Table 1 Country-wise nutrient input reduction targets (HELCOM 2007)
*Non-HELCOM countries













The HELCOM countries have committed themselves:

  • to urgently conduct hydrographic re-surveys of all marine areas important for the safety of navigation;
  • to designate the Baltic Sea as a nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission control area within the framework of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), meaning that ships’ emissions would be limited by stricter international regulations; and
  • to enhance port reception facilities for sewage in major passenger ports, following up on the joint proposal by the HELCOM countries to the IMO that discharges of untreated sewage from passenger ships operating in the Baltic Sea should be banned.

The funding for above-mentioned actions and the establishment of projects to reduce pollution to the Baltic Sea will come from a blend of sources, including national budgets, EU structural funds, as well as International Financial Institutions.

The total costs of reaching the nutrient reduction targets are highly dependent on the cost-efficiency of the measures chosen. The cost-efficiency of measures varies depending on the type of measure and on the conditions in the specific country or geographic location where reductions are implemented.

The estimated total costs for reducing eutrophication of the Baltic Sea with a cost-effective solution have been estimated to range between €1.6 billion and €16.5 billion per year. But the cost of non-action, continuing business as usual, could be a lot higher. For the time being, there are only highly fragmentary ideas of what the costs of inaction could possibly be. For example, there is an estimate that if eutrophication worsens to an extent where the commercial fisheries collapse, the fish processing fisheries would suffer a loss of €4.5 billion, together with a loss of 50,000 jobs.

The Baltic Sea Action Plan has already been heralded as a pioneer scheme for European seas. The European Commission has recognized that the HELCOM plan will be instrumental for the successful implementation of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive in the Baltic Sea region. The importance of HELCOM’s work is also recognized in relation to the EU Maritime Policy, and the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region draws heavily from the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan in its environmental as well as safety and security pillars.

The Baltic presents a challenging showcase of environmental management of a sea. But in the past we have built strong cooperation between all the countries in the region. And we are confident that by serious commitments and continued dedicated HELCOM work it is possible to turn a seriously polluted sea into a global example of successful marine restoration under the umbrella of regional cooperation. Our ongoing work will lead to a prosperous, safe, attractive and environmentally sustainable Baltic Sea region.

For more information on HELCOM please visit: 

and for more information on the Regional Seas Programme please visit


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