How to avoid a shortage of phosphorus, an essential element for maintaining life in our crops

By Rafael Garcia, CEO and founder of Agrobiológica Sustentabilidade

29.06.2023 | 09:56 (UTC -3)

Without phosphorus, there is no life in the countryside. It is essential for the health of plants, functioning as the currency of energy used in growth. However, to understand the dimension and importance of this element for increasing productivity, a brief geographical and scientific context is necessary.

Brazilian soils are geologically very old. Experts point out that our territory has one of the most complete geological records, with evidence of more than 3 billion years of the evolution of the rocks that underlie the Earth's relief.

This means that a large part of Brazilian soils are acidic and poor in nutrients, which ends up hindering the development of very important crops, such as corn, for example. With natural soil fertility considered low, modern agriculture began to prioritize the application of inputs. One of them is phosphorus, present in small quantities until then.

As it is naturally not present in our soils, this element is traditionally imported from other countries. The regular application of phosphorus in agriculture began in the mid-1960s. And precisely because we have a more clayey and older type of terrain, this element was fixed over years of continuous application of inputs to crops, with the help of another A great ally of agriculture, iron, responsible for the red color of the soil.

Plants absorb only around 20% to 30% of the phosphorus that is applied, the rest is retained in the soil. As a result, a concept called the Match Bank was created. In 2018, Embrapa estimated that a total of 45,7 million tons of phosphorus had been applied in Brazil since 1960, when the regular use of the input in agriculture began, until the time of the research. At the time, it was estimated that 22,8 million tons of this amount remained fixed in the ground.

At the same time that we have this “reserve” of phosphorus in the soil, there is already talk of a global shortage of the nutrient, which makes sense, since we are talking about a finite resource. According to experts' estimates, the element's sources could be exhausted in just 50 to 100 years. But, with the accelerated growth of the world's population and the high demand for food, depletion may take even less time.

But in the case of Brazil, which has this “match bank” accumulated over the years, how can it access its reserves in the event of a crisis generated by its lack? The secret is in the roots of the plants.

As they grow and go deeper into the soil in search of water, they produce some sugars and other substances that feed groups of microorganisms, which in turn produce organic acids and enzymes, accessing reserves of phosphorus and iron, “pulling” these nutrients from returns to the plant along with the water. Once they are absorbed, we can count on a more developed plant and, consequently, greater productivity and profitability for the rural producer.

Nowadays, the market already has efficient products that help to solubilize phosphorus in the soil, most of which are intended for large crops, such as soybeans and corn.

By Rafael Garcia, CEO and founder of Agrobiológica Sustentabilidade

Mosaic Biosciences March 2024