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7 Numbers You Should Know About Global Fertility

Fertilizer goes with your crop like a baseball goes with a bat.

Still, there are places in the world where fertilizer isn’t always a given. That’s changing, though, according to a fertilizer and soil health panel at this week’s World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa. Here are some numbers to keep in mind when it comes to global fertility issues. 

* 3 to 10.  Think your fertilizer costs are high? Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have it a lot tougher. Their fertilizer prices are 3 to 10 times more than prices in other parts of the world.

On the surface, that’s hard to figure, since Africa has 60% of the world’s phosphate reserves. So what gives? 

“One of the big challenges we see in Africa is the number of  

paved roads,” says Amit Roy, president and CEO of the International Fertilizer Development Center. This lack of infrastructure adds significant transportation costs. 

To counter this, small plants scattered around the continent are being built. “Many companies are looking at strategic location of plants tailored to the soils and plants in those regions,” says Roy.

* 30% or less. That’s the amount of nitrogen (N) efficiency that rice farmers in Africa and southeast Asia often see. “So when a farmer applies three bags of fertilizer, plants just get the benefit of one bag,” says Roy.

Micronutrient deficiencies are also common in those areas. However, technologies like micronutrient seed-core technology are helping to boost efficiency. 

In one case, urea granules with zinc have the granule’s urea core replaced by a zinc core. That helps curb zinc deficiencies in these countries. 

“Each granule has micronutrients, so there is measured delivery to the plant,” says Roy. “Farmers don’t have to do guesswork. There have been good results in China and Bangladesh.”

* 2 billion. These are the number of people worldwide who are zinc deficient, says Esin Mete, president of the International Fertilizer Industry Association. 

Besides aiding plants, adding zinc to zinc-deficient soils can have a positive effect on human health. 

“I have seen the result of micronutrient fertilizers in my home country of Turkey,” says Mete. “After scientific research revealed Turkish soils deficient in zinc, my company dedicated itself to produce zinc-enhanced fertilizer.”

The results? Higher crop yields and a new generation growing up free of zinc deficiencies, she says. 

* 2 billion. That’s the world population that agriculture could support had the Haber-Bosch process to develop commercial fertilizer had not been developed early in the 20th Century, says Pedro Sanchez, director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University. Currently, the world’s population is 7.125 billion,

Consequently, new technologies—including new fertilizer products and techniques—will be needed to support the estimated 9 billion people that will be on the earth by 2050, he says. 

* The next 35 years. In this time span, the amount of agricultural innovation needed to feed over 9 billion people will be equivalent to the amount that has occurred over the last 10,000 years,” says Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, executive director of The Mosaic Company Foundation. 

Fertilizer will be a key part of this, as will precision agricultural techniques that vary fertilizer rates according to soil types and other factors. “This helps plants optimize the need,” says Niedfeldt-Thomas. 

* 17. That’s how many nutrients that are essential for plant growth. These include the big three—N, phosphorus (P) and potassium. Micronutrients like sulfur and zinc also are crucial, too. 

“Balanced crop nutrition is critical for plants to be the healthiest they can be,” says Niedfeldt-Thomas.

Fertilizer innovations can help farmers. Technologies that combine macronutrient and micronutrients into single granules can help ensure plants garner maximum nutrition. Ditto for controlled-release products. Meanwhile, low-carbon fertilizers being developed in Europe help minimize greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. 

* 500 to 600 years. Given advances in future sourcing technologies, that’s the number of years that world P reserves will last, says Roy. 

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