Integrating legacy soil phosphorus into sustainable nutrient management strategies for future food, bioenergy and water security
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Legacy phosphorus (P) that has accumulated in soils from past inputs of fertilizers and manures is a large secondary global source of P that could substitute manufactured fertilizers, help preserve critical reserves of finite phosphate rock to ensure future food and bioenergy supply, and gradually improve water quality. We explore the issues and management options to better utilize legacy soil P and conclude that it represents a valuable and largely accessible P resource. The future value and period over which legacy soil P can be accessed depends on the amount present and its distribution, its availability to crops and rates of drawdown determined by the cropping system. Full exploitation of legacy P requires a transition to a more holistic system approach to nutrient management based on technological advances in precision farming, plant breeding and microbial engineering together with a greater reliance on recovered and recycled P. We propose the term ‘agro-engineering’ to encompass this integrated approach. Smaller targeted applications of fertilizer P may still be needed to optimize crop yields where legacy soil P cannot fully meet crop demands. Farm profitability margins, the need to recycle animal manures and the extent of local eutrophication problems will dictate when, where and how quickly legacy P is best exploited. Based on our analysis, we outline the stages and drivers in a transition to the full utilization of legacy soil P as part of more sustainable regional and global nutrient management.