RePhoKUs: The Role of Phosphorus in the Resilience and Sustainability of the UK Food System

Food production systems need to become more efficient, sustainable and resilient to safeguard future food, energy and water security. In particular we need to transform the way that essential resources for food production, such as nutrients, water and energy, are utilised within the whole food system. One such critical resource is phosphorus (P); a key nutrient for crop and livestock production but a finite resource found in only a few countries. UK food systems are vulnerable to global shocks and stresses in P supply however its inefficient use in the food system is at the same time degrading valued ecosystem services such as clean water and biodiversity, affecting human health. Sustainable management of P across the UK food system is therefore critical for both ensuring food security and environmental protection.

RePhoKUs aims to understand the role of P in the resilience and sustainability of the UK food system. The UK has no domestic source of P and is therefore reliant on imports of P for fertiliser, feeds and food. UK agriculture is vulnerable to future global shortages of P and fluctuating import prices. With an interdisciplinary research team covering the biological, environmental and socio-economic sciences, the project will quantify this vulnerability and develop approaches to increase the resilience of the UK food system to future P scarcity and improve the environmental performance of food production by reducing eutrophication risk.

Project Approach:

The work programme aims to develop and prioritise the P stewardship adaptations that might overcome food system vulnerability and improve environmental performance, both at a catchment scale working with the agricultural community and in the wider food system. This will include examining:

  • technological innovations to improve P use efficiency and reuse of secondary sources of P,
  • the potential for accessing legacy P in soils as a secondary source,
  • biophysical, technological, socio-economic and institutional barriers to implementing improved P stewardship within catchments
  • adaptive capacity of stakeholders to implement optimal P stewardship solutions.

At the UK food systems level, the project will deliver the first P vulnerability assessment for the UK food chain and identify potential transformative management options to help maximise more sustainable P use.


RePhoKUs is working in three case-study catchments in the UK that differ in their dominant farming systems and hydrology – The Upper Bann, the Upper Welland and the Wye. These catchments will be the focus of our work and will enable us to produce practical outcomes in collaboration with farming and policy stakeholders. The catchments were selected based on the availability of historical datasets, ongoing monitoring programmes and existing stakeholder engagement networks. Workshops with the farming communities in these catchment areas are ongoing and the project is working alongside partners such as the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, The Rivers Trusts, and with various farmer networks and organisations across Wales, Northern Ireland and Yorkshire, to ensure the work is complementary to ongoing research activities. The networks built during this project will provide a platform for sharing new insights into the supply and management of P at a catchment scale, which will be of value to the UK agricultural community.

Further Information:

The RePhoKUs project is a collaboration between Lancaster University, University of Leeds, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, The Agri-food and Biosciences Institute and University of Technology Sydney.  This £1.5m research project is made possible with funding from the Global Food Security’s ‘Resilience of the UK Food System Programme’.

Find out more about RePhoKUs.