Efficiency, economics, and environmental implications of phosphorus resource use and the fertilizer industry in China

W.F. Zhang, W.Q. Ma, Y.X. Ji, M.S. Fan, O. Oenema, F.S. Zhang

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109 Citations (Scopus)


Phosphorus (P) is an essential nutrient for crop production and is often in short supply. The necessary P fertilizers are derived from deposits in the lithosphere, which are limited in size and nonrenewable. China is one of the world's largest consumers and producers of P fertilizers. Thus, P resource use efficiency in China has an important impact on the worldwide efficiency of P resource use. This study examined the P fertilizer industry in China in terms of P resource use efficiency, economics, and environmental risk, and explored options for improvement through scenario analysis. P resource use efficiency decreased from a mean of 71% before 1995 to 39% in 2003, i.e., from every 10 kg P in rock material, only 3.9 kg P was used to produce fertilizer, 5.6 kg of the residues were discarded at the mining site, and 0.5 kg was manufacturing waste. The decreased efficiency was caused by increased P rock mining activities, especially from small, inefficient miners. Enhanced mining was supported by local governments and by the growing P fertilizer industry, where high-analysis P fertilizers have fourfold higher gross margins than traditional low-analysis fertilizers. Although the growing fertilizer industry is contributing significantly to the development of some regions, the economic efficiency is still lower than in other countries, e.g., in the USA. The P resource is depleting quickly, and the environmental consequences of inefficient use are serious. The amount of accumulated phosphor gypsum was estimated to be 110 Tg, the amount of deteriorated land reached 475 km(2), and the consumption of ground water was 1.8 billion m(3) per year. The low efficiency and serious environmental risk could be attributed to the numerous small inefficient miners, which were supported by intervention of governmental subsidies and taxes after 1995. This study proved that there is a great deal of room for improvement in the resource use efficiency up to 77% by integrated measures, which need broad cooperation of miners, fertilizer plants, and agriculture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-144
JournalNutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • phosphogypsum
  • world


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