Integrating legacy soil phosphorus into sustainable nutrient management strategies for future food, bioenergy and water security

Helen Rowe, Paul J.A. Withers, Peter Baas, Neng Iong Chan, Donnacha Doody, Jeff Holiman, Brent Jacobs, Haigang Li, Graham K. MacDonald, Richard McDowell, Andrew N. Sharpley, Jianbo Shen, Wendy Taheri, Matthew Wallenstein, Michael N. Weintraub

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

209 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)393-412
Number of pages20
JournalNutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This paper was initiated and refined at the Phosphorus Sustainability Research Coordination Network (P RCN) meetings in Tempe, Arizona in January 2014 and Washington DC in May 2015. We thank the U.S. National Science Foundation (CHE-1230603) for funding that workshop and to the UK Science & Innovation Network of the British Consulate-General for providing additional travel support. We also thank Dr. Tom Bruulsema, International Plant Nutrition Institute and two anonymous referees for their useful comments.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.


  • Crop production
  • Eutrophication
  • Legacy phosphorus
  • P recycling
  • P use efficiency
  • Phosphate rock
  • Sustainable nutrient management


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