Action needs to be taken to deal with the impact of phosphorus on food and water security, scientists have said.

The finite nutrient is extracted from phosphate rock and is an essential element in fertilisers to grow food and to increase crop yields to feed the growing population.

But a scientific report released on Thursday (June 9) shows poor management of phosphorus is leading to food shortages, with farmers struggling to afford sufficient fertiliser.

Meanwhile, overuse of the nutrient pumps millions of tonnes of phosphorus into lakes and rivers each year, having a devastating impact on biodiversity in freshwater eco-systems.

Dr Will Brownlie, a University of Edinburgh (UoE) freshwater scientist who co-ordinated the Our Phosphorus Future report, said recycling the nutrient to reuse it in fertilisers is one of the essential solutions to solving the crisis.

Salisbury Journal: Millions of tonnes of phosphorus are pumped into the UK's rivers and lakes each year (PA)Millions of tonnes of phosphorus are pumped into the UK's rivers and lakes each year (PA)

The report calls for a 50:50:50 goal – a 50% reduction in global phosphorus pollution and a 50% increase in the recycling of phosphorus lost in waste by 2050.

Dr Brownlie said: “If we do this, we will return 8.5 million tonnes of phosphorus to our farms that could support a food system that could provide enough food for four times our population.

“We would save the global farming community 20 billion dollars in annual fertiliser costs that they would have been paying… but if we were to stop them, it would cost us 300 billion dollars to fix.”

He said reaching this goal would also provide enough phosphorus to sustain more than four times the current global population.

What is the current impact of phosphorus?

In the UK, 26,000 tonnes of phosphorus is lost to UK waters each year, which means 75% of lakes and 54% of rivers are failing phosphorus standards.

The crisis is costing the country £170 million in pollution costs and £265 billion on a global scale.

In England, it is the primary cause of water quality impairment, and across the world phosphorus pollution drives one of the greatest biodiversity losses in biomes and freshwater ecosystems, the report said.

Promoting a global shift to a healthy diet with a low phosphorus footprint has also been recommended by the report.