Limitation of grain crop productivity by phosphorus (P) is widespread and will probably increase in the future. Enhanced P efficiency can be achieved by improved uptake of phosphate from soil (P-acquisition efficiency) and by improved productivity per unit P taken up (P-use efficiency). This review focuses on improved P-use efficiency, which can be achieved by plants that have overall lower P concentrations, and by optimal distribution and redistribution of P in the plant allowing maximum growth and biomass allocation to harvestable plant parts. Significant decreases in plant P pools may be possible, for example, through reductions of superfluous ribosomal RNA and replacement of phospholipids by sulfolipids and galactolipids. Improvements in P distribution within the plant may be possible by increased remobilization from tissues that no longer need it (e.g. senescing leaves) and reduced partitioning of P to developing grains. Such changes would prolong and enhance the productive use of P in photosynthesis and have nutritional and environmental benefits. Research considering physiological, metabolic, molecular biological, genetic and phylogenetic aspects of P-use efficiency is urgently needed to allow significant progress to be made in our understanding of this complex trait.