, Volume 41, Issue 4, pp 341–349 | Cite as

The Impact of First-Generation Biofuels on the Depletion of the Global Phosphorus Reserve

  • Lars Hein
  • Rik Leemans


The large majority of biofuels to date is “first-generation” biofuel made from agricultural commodities. All first-generation biofuel production systems require phosphorus (P) fertilization. P is an essential plant nutrient, yet global reserves are finite. We argue that committing scarce P to biofuel production involves a trade-off between climate change mitigation and future food production. We examine biofuel production from seven types of feedstock, and find that biofuels at present consume around 2% of the global inorganic P fertilizer production. For all examined biofuels, with the possible exception of sugarcane, the contribution to P depletion exceeds the contribution to mitigating climate change. The relative benefits of biofuels can be increased through enhanced recycling of P, but high increases in P efficiency are required to balance climate change mitigation and P depletion impacts. We conclude that, with the current production systems, the production of first-generation biofuels compromises food production in the future.


Biofuels Phosphorus Climate change Trade-off 



We would like to thank Nico de Ridder and two anonymous referees for comments.


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Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Systems Analysis GroupWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands

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