The pivotal role of phosphorus in a resilient water-energy-food security nexus

Helen P. Jarvie, Andrew N. Sharpley, Don Flaten, Peter J.A. Kleinman, Alan Jenkins, Tarra Simmons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

125 Scopus citations


We make the case that phosphorus (P) is inextricably linked to an increasingly fragile, interconnected, and interdependent nexus of water, energy, and food security and should be managed accordingly. Although there are many other drivers that influence water, energy, and food security, P plays a unique and underrecognized role within the nexus. The P paradox derives from fundamental challenges in meeting water, energy, and food security for a growing global population. We face simultaneous dilemmas of overcoming scarcity of P to sustain terrestrial food and biofuel production and addressing overabundance of P entering aquatic systems, which impairs water quality and aquatic ecosystems and threatens water security. Historical success in redistributing rock phosphate as fertilizer to enable modern feed and food production systems is a grand societal achievement in overcoming inequality. However, using the United States as the main example, we demonstrate how successes in redistribution of P and reorganization of farming systems have broken local P cycles and have inadvertently created instability that threatens resilience within the nexus. Furthermore, recent expansion of the biofuels sector is placing further pressure on P distribution and availability. Despite these challenges, opportunities exist to intensify and expand food and biofuel production through recycling and better management of land and water resources. Ultimately, a strategic approach to sustainable P management can help address the P paradox, minimize tradeoffs, and catalyze synergies to improve resilience among components of the water, energy, and food security nexus.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1049-1062
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


Dive into the research topics of 'The pivotal role of phosphorus in a resilient water-energy-food security nexus'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this