“Life’s Bottleneck” Ingredient Phosphorus Could Improve Sub-Saharan Africa’s Food Security Future

25 November 2022

New research aims to improve understanding of the potential impact of finite resource phosphorus on Sub-Saharan Africa’s food security future.

New research aims to improve understanding of the potential impact of finite resource phosphorus on Sub-Saharan Africa’s food security future.

An international collaboration between the University of Lincoln, UK, University of Manchester, UK, PBL Netherlands, and Origin Enterprises Digital ltd, UK, has worked to help Sub-Saharan Africa become more food secure, by understanding the barriers preventing access to environmental resources, and breaking down physical or economic barriers that have historically prevented ambition becoming reality.

Phosphorus is the most agriculturally yield limiting nutrient, with its supply crucial to food availability as it is critical to plant growth and there are no known biochemical alternatives, giving it the description ‘Life’s Bottleneck’. 

Sub-Saharan Africa has the worst food security record of any region on Earth and this research addresses the urgent need to improve it. The research is published in Nature Communications, and it assesses how access to geological sources of phosphorus can make a difference.

Lead author Dr Daniel Magnone, Deputy Head of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: “Our research has shown that whilst the challenge of improving food security across many areas of sub-Saharan Africa in the coming decades is large, it is not insurmountable.

“The geological resources needed to achieve higher yields are available and whilst this would require high initial investments for many countries, the rewards are great. The greatest threats to food security in the region come from political ideologies such as increased nationalism or growing inequality.”

Co-corresponding author, Prof Vahid Niasar – Deputy Head of Research at School of Engineering at the University of Manchester adds: “This interdisciplinary research shows some aspects of this complex problem where the regional soil chemistry and history of phosphorus application impact the potentials for improving the crop production under five plausible future scenarios across different countries in sub-Saharan Africa.”

The research projected five plausible scenarios where economic growth was accelerated – either by sustainable “green” economies or by fossil fuels – to improve food security. By contrast, should societies become more unequal or nationalistic, by trade or by implementing isolationist policies, then the food security and environmental scenarios for Sub-Saharan Africa will deteriorate further.

The new model predicts how much phosphorus will be required for an agricultural yield, considering how much phosphorus crops need to grow and the soil condition. Once established, a prediction can be made as to how much phosphorus will be required in the future for the population of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The research highlighted that neither the supply nor the cost of phosphorus presents a substantial barrier to Sub-Saharan Africa becoming more food secure.

Key challenges lie in the political arena and the research suggests the future should be focussed on economic growth, ideally in a sustainable framework in order to improve food security.

The full paper published in Nature Communications: The impact of phosphorus on projected Sub-Saharan Africa food security futures | Nature Communications