In June 2015, Dr. Matthew Platz, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, along with Dr. James Elser, Regents’ and Parents Association Professor and Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University, organized an NSF-sponsored FEW workshop. The workshop, entitled “Closing the Human Phosphorus Cycle,” explored the science and engineering needs necessary to ensure more efficient phosphorus (P) use in food production. This included the identification of new technologies that can support the recovery and recycling of P at various points in the food system. Platz took time to answer some questions about FEW Nexus research.
Ariela Zycherman (AZ): Why do you think the Food-Energy-Water nexus is important?
Matthew Platz (MP): By mid-century, there may be nine to ten billion people on the planet. Human civilization will have to produce more food for more people with less land, less water, and less fertilizer. Developing low-cost, scalable technology for recycling phosphorus fertilizer will be critical to these efforts.
AZ: What is your disciplinary background and how do you see it relating to the nexus?
MP: My disciplinary background is chemistry. Chemistry has a huge role to play in developing low-cost, easy to use, reliable detectors of phosphorus in its various forms. But chemistry also can play an important role by uncovering how plant roots sense and transports phosphorus.
AZ: What is the biggest challenge about working at the nexus?
MP: Many scientists have decades of investment in solving a specific disciplinary problem. It is difficult to get their attention and to get them to stop working on a career-long project to fully engage in new area.
AZ: Do you have any advice for young scholars who are interested in pursuing Food-Energy-Water nexus research?
MP: My advice is to not be discouraged by older faculty who might take a dim view of research in a non-traditional, interdisciplinary area.
AZ: What was the coolest thing you learned at the Food-Energy-Water Nexus workshop?
MP: That the current producers of phosphate rock have a greater monopoly on this commodity than OPEC has on petroleum
Learn more about Matthew Platz, and read the University of Hawaii, Hilo and Arizona State University workshop white paper.
Matthew Platz was interviewed by Ariela Zycherman, PhD, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems, Directorate of Engineering, National Science Foundation.
Image courtesy Matthew Platz.