Published 2018-11-22

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Mistra Geopolitics charts phosphorus flow

Karin Eliasson, researcher in Mistra Geopolitics, wants to raise awareness of the risks of today’s global phosphorus management. Phosphorus affects the environment and, moreover, its management is geopolitically vulnerable.

The global flows of phosphorus — from mining of phosphate rock in Morocco to discharges into the Baltic Sea, causing eutrophication there — are the focus of Karin Eliasson’s research. In her project, she wants to initiate a discussion with key Swedish stakeholders on how phosphorus management could become more sustainable.

‘Sweden is at the forefront of sustainability, but we have lots of work to do in terms of production, and of our consumption of imported goods. Our food consumption creates environmental problems elsewhere in the world, but it’s also vulnerable,’ says Karin Eliasson, a PhD student at Tema M — Environmental Change, part of Linköping University’s Department of Thematic Studies. She is one of the researchers in Mistra Geopolitics.

Today’s food production is entirely dependent on the availability of phosphorus. Without phosphorus, a key component of commercial fertiliser, producing as much food as we do now would be impossible. But from a sustainability perspective handling phosphorus is problematic for several reasons, including the environmental impact of, for example, mining of phosphate ore and leaching of phosphorus from agriculture.

Phosphorus is also a finite resource. Sooner or later the reserves, in the form of high-quality extractable phosphate rock will run out. Global phosphorus resources are concentrated in only a few countries.

‘More than 90 per cent of the phosphate rock in global reserves is in six countries: Morocco, China, Algeria, Syria, Jordan and South Africa. That makes the supply of phosphorus vulnerable. In the event of future conflicts, there’s a risk that phosphorus may become hard to obtain,’ Eliasson says.

Today, political uncertainty already prevails in several countries with large phosphorus reserves. Three-quarters of the world’s known phosphorus resources are controlled by Morocco, since the reserves are partly in Western Sahara, which is occupied by Morocco in violation of UN resolutions.

In August, Eliasson and her Mistra Geopolitics colleague Tina Neset took part in an interdisciplinary conference in Brazil about phosphorus, the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit. There, Eliasson presented a survey of how phosphorus management is linked by a long chain to, for example, Swedish meat consumption:

  • Phosphorus is mined in Morocco and a few other countries for later conversion into commercial fertiliser.
  • Some fertiliser is exported to Brazil for soybean cultivation.
  • Soybeans are imported by Swedish meat producers for animal feed, whereupon the phosphorus ends up on Swedish consumers’ plates.

‘The flow of phosphorus is complex. Swedish food production can potentially be affected by changes throughout the long chain. At the same time, our production and consumption of food causes environmental problems in both Brazil and Morocco.’

With her dissertation project, Eliasson wants to raise awareness among stakeholders about Sweden’s dependence on phosphorus and what risks it entails. In her research, she works with Tina Neset and Victoria Wibeck, both of Linköping University, and also collaborates with other researchers in Mistra Geopolitics.

Later in the project, she will gather external stakeholders in focus groups whose members will test various scenarios and reflect on how to boost sustainability. Representatives of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management and the business community will be among the stakeholders invited.

‘Together, we’ll discuss and investigate these complex flows and relationships, using maps and other interactive visualisations. What do the phosphorus flows look like? How are we affected in Sweden? And how do we influence the rest of the world?’

Part of the research is about creating a basis for visualisations. Currently, web-based computer tools are being developed.

‘For example, we’ll compile environmental data on the municipalities in Brazil that we buy soybeans from. By combining that data with trade data on the phosphorus used in Sweden, we can see how meat production in Sweden affects the environment locally in places in Brazil.’

There are hopes that the focus groups will, in the long run, prompt new measures and strategies on issues relating to agricultural policy, infrastructure and phosphorus recovery, for example. But this is no explicit goal for the research.

‘I won’t propose concrete solutions. The project, as well as the entire Mistra Geopolitics programme, involves what’s known as “co-creative” research. We’ll work jointly with external stakeholders, with us as scientists providing facts and understanding, while they contribute their knowledge and questions,’ Eliasson says.

Facts about the programme

The overall purpose of Mistra Geopolitics is to critically examine the interaction between geopolitics, security and global climate and environmental change.

The work is organised in five interdisciplinary research areas (‘work packages’)’, in close dialogue with 15 stakeholders, and conducted in partnership between the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), universities in Linköping, Uppsala, Stockholm and Lund, and the think tanks E3G (‘Third-Generation Environmentalism’, UK) and adelphi (Germany). The programme is funded by Mistra.

The website,, provides more information about the programme, a presentation by the researchers and video clips with examples of current issues.

Text: Henrik Lundström