Apr 25, 2023
What Connects Bones, Bird Poop, and Toxic Green Slime? Hint: Without It, Half of Us Wouldn't Be Alive Today
It’s the 13th element on the periodic table, it glows in the dark, and it spontaneously combusts if it gets any hotter than 80 degrees Fahrenheit; little surprise, then, that phosphorus is known as “the devil’s element.” But this satanic substance is also essential to all life on earth, which is why it's a key ingredient in fertilizer—without which, researchers estimate, we could only grow enough food for half as many humans as are alive today. The incredible crop-growing powers of phosphorus have led humans to do some pretty extreme things to get it—from seizing Pacific islands to scavenging bones from Europe’s most famous battlefields—but they’ve also created a devilish paradox. The world is running out of phosphorus, and yet there’s way too much of it running off farm fields into rivers, lakes, and oceans, where it fuels toxic algae blooms. This episode, we've got the story behind the phosphorus paradox, as we ask: is there any way to fertilize the planet without sending it to hell?
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