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Analyzing vulnerability to global phosphorus scarcity

Student Name: Ms Madhuri Nanda
Guide: Prof. Arun Kansal
Year of completion: 2019


The significance of phosphorus (P) in crop production is widely recognized and its link with food security has been clearly established by researchers (Jones et al., 2013; Rao et al., 2015; Weikard, 2016). Given that P is irreplaceable in agriculture (Lougheed, 2011), the supplies of rock phosphate are finite (Cordell and White, 2014), and the global distribution of P reserves is far from uniform (Jasinski, 2017) the scarcity of P and access to its supplies are matters of great concern. Phosphate mining and over-application of phosphate fertilisers to farmlands have accelerated the natural P cycle, mobilising large amounts of phosphorus into the environment, particularly ending up in rivers, lakes and oceans (Bouwman et al., 2009). Indeed, 80% of phosphorus mined for food is lost or wasted along the supply chain. Further, the world’s remaining high-quality phosphate reserves are becoming increasingly scarce. This means they are typically of a lower P concentration, contain more contaminants, are more physically challenging to extract (such as below sea bed), located in more geopolitically risky regions, are more costly and generate more waste (Cordell & White, 2014). All the above factors make many nations that depend on imports of P even more vulnerable, including India and the developing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cordell and White, 2014). Given these challenges related to P, an urgent need is felt for countries who still haven’t embarked on a sustainability journey for management of P resources. One of the approaches to such research includes ascertaining vulnerability and taking measures to improve P security.

The concept of ‘vulnerability’ has evolved in scientific literature from the need to manage risks, later expanding to include susceptibility to harm as well as coping mechanisms and capacities (De Leon, 2006). Various disciplines have recognized that it is essential to assess vulnerability before developing appropriate coping strategies, for instance in dealing with climate change (Rao et al., 2016; Wirehn et al., 2015), in disaster management, and for infrastructure development (Grubesic and Matisziw, 2013). However, only a few methodological frameworks are available to measure vulnerability comprehensively (De Leon, 2006). One of these few frameworks include measuring vulnerability using either ‘topdown’ approaches, which focus on the direct cause-and-effect relationships of external disturbances, or ‘bottom-up’ approaches, which focus on vulnerable populations (MoEFCC and GIZ, 2014)—the choice is informed by the purpose of measuring vulnerability. In the current research, vulnerability in the context of P is defined as ‘the degree to which a given food system is susceptible to harm due to the dimensions of global phosphorus scarcity’ (Cordell and Neset, 2014).

In India, no prior study was found that analyzed vulnerability in the domain of phosphorus resources. Existing research found in the country mainly focused on improvement of soil uptake, phosphorus use efficiency by plants, better utilization of indigenous rock phosphates or investigation of soil nutrients enrichment, among others. Evidently, a countrywide vulnerability study was lacking. Such an assessment could significantly contribute towards policy inputs for reducing P demands and securing future supplies, especially for the farming community in the country. The study, for the first time established, an index to measure vulnerability and build resilience over time. The study also uniquely provides a comparative assessment with a developed country advanced in P resource management discourse, which particularly strengthens the recommendations emerging from the study. Thus, in addition to providing a zoom-in assessment of vulnerability to P scarcity at subregional scale, the research offers an account of key learning from a zoom-out global perspective. Thus, multiscalar approach helped contextualize the policy options for a developing country bringing out the key knowledge gaps in the existing institutional setup.

Given the research gap concerning vulnerability studies related to phosphorus, the current study aims to analyse vulnerability to P scarcity for India as well as identify possible measures to address the same. Integrating the top-down and bottom-up approach, the research has three main objectives: (1) undertake a comprehensive review of existing P management policies in India, (2) prepare P Vulnerability Index (PVI) for India using topdown and a sub-regional level PVI using bottom-up approach, and (3) draw policy relevant conclusions for sustainable management of P resources in India, also drawing from the comparison with a country advanced in P discourse. A comprehensive review of existing policies in India helped understand the current institutional framework for P or nutrient management in India. It reveals that existing policies and umbrella programs from government could be further strengthened to bring targeted focus on P management. Currently, the schemes do not account for the co-benefits accrued from P management, which could make implementation of these policies even more lucrative. The study undertakes establishment of vulnerability first at national level for India following which regional vulnerability is established for Sonipat at district level in Haryana. Further, the substance flows undertaken as part of the regional study guides the strategies that could be useful in improving vulnerabilities to P scarcity. This study compliments the messages from national study with the study of Germany’s case to capture developed country perspectives on P management. Complimented with discussions with stakeholders at various levels, including national experts as well as regional stakeholders, including farmers, the study brings out the contextual issues in India. The learning from study of Germany’s discourse further ensures that policy measures are based on stronger evidences from experience sharing.

The research work is exploratory in nature and utilizes mixed research methods, including qualitative approach for analysing policy documents and stakeholder perspectives whereas quantitative approach is used for establishing PVI at national and regional scale, in addition to calculating P flows in the region to understand potential areas of P loss from the system. Mathematical models to estimate these are derived and systematically used in the study. The participatory methodology used at each step ensured sound engagement with stakeholders at diverse levels for better understanding of the contextual issues. All the perspectives were finally collated to derive informed strategies for policymakers to help building resilience against P scarcity.

The results derived from the research uniquely highlighted that unless regional efforts are implemented and collated at different levels within the country, the national resilience towards phosphorus scarcity could not be cultivated. The study emphasizes on the need for awareness building and creating dialogue among stakeholders in India, either as a taskforce or a national platform. This would help contextualize and address the P issues for India. This is particularly relevant given the diversity of geographical and climatic areas, for instance India as a P-scarce developing economy viz-a-viz Germany having P-enriched soil and developed economy. The PVI assessment carried out at national scale highlights the need for dedicated and targeted programs specifically for P. For example, supply-side measures like recovery from waste and demand-side measures like crop diversification into less P-intensive cropping pattern is essential. The vulnerability indicator, dependence on P imports, has maximum impact on PVI value. Hence, specific policies targeting reducing this dependence would be needed. For instance, strengthening the research on use of indigenous P resources in combination with farmyard manure. It is interesting to note that even in the best case, national vulnerability could only be brought to a medium level by addressing the policy measures. However, regional vulnerability could be brought down to low levels through the combination of all the strategies, including supply-side, demand-side and most importantly those targeting improved governance. Thus, institutional measures need to be built into the policies and programs for P management. Effective policy implementation at grassroot level needs policy planning built on the participatory approach through involvement of local stakeholders, particularly farmers. The study revealed that focus on P resource recovery alone would not lead to successful P resource management. Rather, a balanced approach combining both supply-driven and demand-driven strategies can help arriving at a P-secure region.

Going forward, innovative measures need to be built to strengthen dialogue and linkages amongst stakeholders across the P value chain to build more focused and targeted strategies towards P secure economy. Once these policies are implemented, PVI needs to be updated to check if the country is progressing in the right direction towards overcoming P challenges and building P resilience. The work clearly brings out that the country’s vulnerability cannot be improved unless regional initiatives are undertaken. Once the diversified and unique issues at regional scale are collectively addressed and local resilience is built, the national vulnerability will itself improve. Hence, just macro level policies would not be able to strengthen country’s P resilience, but it would need regional interventions.

Data availability is one of the key limitations of the research, which has been addressed in the current study with justifiable assumptions. In few cases, however, while calculating index, some indicators had to be dropped, as no data was available for those, which necessitates scope for future research. For instance, national economic importance of P, area under biofarming, etc. There is also need for more studies related to substance flow analysis and extending the scope of research to incorporate other nutrients, too.

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