The sixth R: Revitalizing the natural phosphorus pump

Andrew J. Abraham, Joe Roman, Christopher E. Doughty

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Phosphorus (P) is essential for all life on Earth and sustains food production. Yet, the easily accessible deposits of phosphate-rich rock, which underpin the green revolution are becoming rarer. Here we propose a mechanism to help alleviate the problem of “peak phosphorus”. In the past, wild animals played a large role in returning P from ocean depths back to the continental interiors. In doing so, they collectively retained and redistributed P within the biosphere, supporting a more fertile planet. However, species extinctions and population reductions have reduced animal-mediated P transport >90% over the past 12,000 years. Recently a 5R strategy was developed to Realign P inputs, Reduce P losses, Recycle P in bio-resources, Recover P in wastes, and Redefine P in food systems. Here, we suggest a sixth R, to Revitalize the Natural Phosphorus Pump (RNPP). Countries are starting to mandate P recycling and we propose a P-trading scheme based on REDD+, where a country could partially achieve its recycling goals by restoring past animal-mediated P pathways. Accrued money from this scheme could be used to restore or conserve wild animal populations, while increasing natural P recycling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number155023
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Aug 1 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Biodiversity loss
  • Ecosystem services
  • Eutrophication
  • Nature-based solutions
  • Peak P
  • Phosphorus
  • REDD
  • RNPP
  • Rewilding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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