Phosphorus and food security: Framing a global sustainability challenge through art

By Laura Turnbull The role of art in science has gained precedence as a means to engage non-scientific communities in key science-related issues. ASU’s Sustainable Phosphorus Summit explored how art can serve as a universal language by which to communicate critical sustainability challenges – with colorful results.

Phosphorus, and its link to food security, represents a multifaceted global sustainability challenge. Phosphorus (P) is a limited natural resource that is essential for life, with experts predicting the exhaustion of known mineral reserves of P within 100 years.

As a critical element in fertilizer, P is essential to the production of food and, thus, plays a key role in global food security. In the last 50 to 75 years, increased agricultural intensity, heavily reliant on fertilizer to maximize yields, has dramatically boosted dependence on mineral P and increased P runoff. Due to runoff and erosion, vast quantities of phosphorus are lost from farmland and pollute aquatic ecosystems.

Globally, farmers, scientists, engineers and decision makers need to facilitate more efficient use of existing phosphorus and reclaim phosphorus into closed loop cycles. Recycling wastewater, implementing new technologies and creating new practices would help to limit waste and bolster food security for future generations. These challenges require creative solution-building, and one prerequisite is effective communication with non-scientific audiences.

ASU's Sustainable Phosphorus Summit – which brought experts from all over the world to Arizona State University, Feb. 3-5, to discuss phosphorus sustainability – sought to address the communication gap between sustainability science and the public in an uncommon way: by launching an art exhibition. The art exhibition, "Phosphorus, Food and Our Future," partnered more than 20 artists with scientists.

How can sustainability inspire art and improve links between the public, policymakers, industry, farmers, scientists and general understanding about sustainability and phosphorus? The resulting works of art, video, sculpture, dance, music, painting and multimedia helped reveal that while commonly viewed as opposing camps in the creative enterprise, the partnership of artists and scientists can be powerful.

Collaborating with artists forced scientists to think about the ways that key messages about phosphorus can be communicated to a non-scientific audience. The show also was a valuable opportunity for scientists to get a glimpse into how non-scientists view their work and its importance.

Nathaniel Springer, a doctoral student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who attended the Sustainable P Summit, said, "Artist-scientist collaborations are a great way to stimulate conversations about critical issues and evoke an emotional response." Artist Sarah Kriehn, who collaborated with ASU scientist Lara Reichmann, said she felt their collaboration was "enlightening." She also valued the affirmation of the scientific integrity of the artwork they created.

One of the four judges of the art show, Dennita Sewell, a curator with Phoenix Art Museum, drew excitement from being involved in an event that brought together a diverse array of people to address important concepts and raise awareness of the phosphorus sustainability challenge.

Of the members of the public who attended the exhibition, many noted that communication of the phosphorus sustainability challenge through artwork raised their awareness. Most knew little or nothing about phosphorus scarcity prior to attending the art show. One show-goer, Vic Lopez, noted that "visualizing the different facets of the phosphorus sustainability problem through art really helped him to engage with the key issues, and place each of the different facets within the context of the overall problem." For another attendee, the art work served as a catalyst – one that made him take out his smartphone to more deeply explore some of the issues of phosphorus.

United Kingdom scientist Dr. Phil Haygarth was excited by the potential for the artwork to engage young children in science. "Young children are the future and are thus the people who really need to understand these important issues," Haygarth said.

Art is a medium through which messages can be communicated to people across the world, regardless of the language they speak. While the artwork did not necessarily communicate all of the issues pertaining to phosphorus sustainability, art can reach people in ways of which they are not even aware.

Members of the public at the summit acknowledged that without a pre-existing interest in art, they would have had little interest in attending an exhibit about sustainable phosphorus. The show’s success can be measured in how it stimulated discussions, generated curiosity and evoked emotional response – all ingredients essential to addressing sustainability challenges.

Contributor's Biography

Laura Turnbull is a post-doctoral scholar in the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. She would like to acknowledge sponsors of the Sustainable P Summit, Margaret Coulombe, Dan Childers and Barry Sparkman.