Guiding phosphorus stewardship for multiple ecosystem services

Graham K. Macdonald, Helen P. Jarvie, Paul J.A. Withers, Donnacha G. Doody, Bonnie L. Keeler, Philip M. Haygarth, Laura T. Johnson, Richard W. Mcdowell, Michael K. Miyittah, Stephen M. Powers, Andrew N. Sharpley, Jianbo Shen, Douglas R. Smith, Michael N. Weintraub, Tiequan Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


The essential role of phosphorus (P) for agriculture and its impact on water quality has received decades of research attention. However, the benefits of sustainable P use and management for society due to its downstream impacts on multiple ecosystem services are rarely acknowledged. We propose a conceptual framework—the “phosphorus‐ecosystem services cascade” ()—to integrate the key ecosystem processes and functions that moderate the relationship between P released to the environment from human actions and ecosystem services at distinct spatial and temporal scales. Indirect pathways in the cascade via soil and aquatic processes link anthropogenic P to biodiversity and multiple services, including recreation, drinking water provision, and fisheries. As anthropogenic P cascades through catchments, it often shifts from a subsidy to a stressor of ecosystem services. Phosphorus stewardship can have emergent ecosystem service co‐benefits due to synergies with other societal or management goals (e.g., recycling of livestock manures and organic wastes could impact soil carbon storage). Applying the framework, we identify key research priorities to align P stewardship with the management of multiple ecosystem services, such as incorporating additional services into agri‐environmental P indices, assessing how widespread recycling of organic P sources could differentially impact agricultural yields and water quality, and accounting for shifting baselines in P stewardship due to climate change. Ultimately, P impacts depend on site‐specific agricultural and biogeophysical contexts, so greater precision in targeting stewardship strategies to specific locations would help to optimize for ecosystem services and to more effectively internalize the downstream costs of farm nutrient management.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01251
JournalEcosystem Health and Sustainability
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The PESC framework was developed as part of the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative, a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Coordination Network (Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Program, RCN-SEES, award #1230603). We thank all workshop participants for fostering discussion about the PESC, as well as two anonymous reviewers for feedback on the manuscript. Research support for GKM came from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of

Funding Information:
Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grants Program, to HPJ and PMH from the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK (NERC), to RWM from the National Science Challenge—Our Land and Water, to JS from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and to TZ from the Growing Forward-2 Research Program of Agricultural and Agri-Food Canada. Vector graphics used in Fig. 2 were created by Tracey Saxby, Jane Hawkey, Jason C. Fisher, Diana Kleine, and Jane Thomas via the Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016, © 2016 MacDonald et al.


  • agriculture
  • ecosystem services
  • phosphorus
  • sustainability
  • water quality


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