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The Next Generation of Plant Nutrition

Norman Borlaug once said, “Seeds are the engine of the Green Revolution, but fertilizers are the fuel.”

Maintaining food production for the growing world population requires using new technology and intensifying production to grow more food on our existing cropland. Fertilizer is essential to accomplishing this.

Plants need light, carbon dioxide, water, and essential nutrients, which can come from both organic and mineral fertilizers, in order to grow. Mineral fertilizers, explains Charlotte Hebebrand, contain more concentrated, consistent and readily available nutrients than organic fertilizers, thus, enabling farmers to grow more on less land. 

“Mineral fertilizers are produced from materials mined from naturally occurring nutrient deposits or from the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere into plant-available forms,” says Hebebrand, who is the director general for the International Fertilizer Association (IFA). “Therefore, mineral fertilizers are a crucial complement to organic fertilizers. Without them, it is estimated world ag production could fall by as much as half.”

In other words, we could not sustain today’s population of 7.6 billion, much less a population of 8.6 and 10 billion expected by 2030 and 2050, without mineral fertilizers. The consumption of fertilizers grew nearly sixfold between 1961 and 2015 (from 32 to 184 million nutrient tons) to keep pace with a population that expanded from 3.1 billion to 7.4 billion during that same period.

“The use of mineral fertilizers really took off due to Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution,” she says. “New seed varieties, which were very responsive to fertilizers, were introduced and ensured food security in many parts of the world. Global fertilizer consumption grew by 6.8% per year from 1965 to 1975, resulting in a dramatic rise of agricultural yields and food production.”

Since then, consumption growth has slowed down. From 1975 to 1985, it was 3.7% per year. From 1985 to 1995, the increase was only .1% per year. Hebebrand believes that drop was due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. From 1995 to 2005, it picked up again and was 1.7%. From 2005 to 2015, it rose slightly to 1.8%. In the most recent five-year period, it was up again to 1.9%.

Regionally, fertilizer consumption growth can vary tremendously. Some markets, such as Europe and the U.S., are now considered mature markets, which China is also becoming. Other markets, like Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Latin America, where fertilizers are still under used, see much faster growth rates. Hebebrand also points out that the market for so-called specialty fertilizers, while is still relatively small, is growing at 8% to 10% per year.

Yet, increasing production has also come with its criticisms.

“High crop yields often come under scrutiny because of the sophisticated nutrient management needed to produce such yields and because of the perception and reality of the potential environmental impacts of those inputs,” says Rob Mikkelsen, director, western North America region, International Plant Nutrition Institute.

There are concerns about imbalanced fertilizer and that the impact of this on the environment needs to be addressed. However, Mikkelsen says it’s important to manage and minimize any risk of nutrient use with the goal of producing a healthy and abundant supply. Proper crop nutrition plays a vital role in maintaining the world's food supply.

Hebebrand agrees.

“We’ve seen some food manufacturers and retailers basically say to their suppliers that they need to reduce fertilizer use in order to shrink their carbon footprint,” she says. “At first glance, that may look like a good suggestion, but it’s not for two reasons.”

First, Hebebrand says they may not only be putting  farmers’ yields in jeopardy but also their companies’ own supply assurances. Second, if you simply focus on rate, you’re forgetting about the other three R’s of nutrient stewardship.

“It’s not just how much you apply, but it’s what type of nutrients you apply, when, and in which place,” she explains. “We are trying to facilitate a more sophisticated understanding of plant nutrition throughout the value chain. We think it’s better for farmers if they are encouraged to implement the four Rs, because not applying fertilizer correctly or not applying enough of it can also have a detrimental environmental impact.”

The Changing Landscape of Plant Nutrition

For nearly a century, IFA has been at the forefront of serving the fertilizer industry on a global level. With more than 470 members in 69 countries, the association encompasses all of the players in the fertilizer value chain including producers, traders, distributors, service providers, as well as advisers, research organizations, and NGOs.

Through the years, the association has witnessed the drastic evolution of how fertilizers are applied to crops due to new technologies.

“Today, as new technologies change our lives and our possibilities more than ever before, the global fertilizer industry wishes to define its place in this future,” says Hebebrand.

To that end, IFA recently developed four scenarios of what the future of the fertilizer industry might look like in 2030.

“It’s been a really fascinating process over the past year,” she says. “Our members and external stakeholders have been asking ourselves how agriculture and plant nutrition will potentially change, and what new opportunities or challenges the industry might face between now and 2030? More innovative plant nutrition solutions will play an important role.”

The scenarios and the implications arising from them will assist IFA in adapting or retooling its services so it can best serve its members into the future. 

“While fertilizers have made a tremendous impact on increasing yields over the years, it's clear that today, we can't rest on our laurels because the other challenge we have is there are environmental issues associated with fertilizer use,” says Hebebrand.

The biggest challenge remains that not all of the fertilizer that's supplied – and this applies to organic as well as mineral fertilizers – is taken up by the plant. 

“We're never going to have 100% uptake, because we're talking about biological systems. In some parts of the world, we have only 50% uptake of nutrients,” she explains. “That doesn't necessarily mean the remaining 50% is lost to the environment because some of it will stay in the soil and be available for future crops. Nonetheless, there are nutrients that are lost to the environment. This is a core challenge for the industry.”

Outreach to farmers on how most effectively to apply the four Rs and new technologies play a crucial role in meeting this challenge.

Ag Innovation Showcase

This is where events like the Ag Innovation Showcase play a key role. In its 10thyear, the theme for 2018 will be promoting nutrition and sustainability, with an emphasis on plant nutrition.

The event, which is being held September 10 to 12 at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, will tackle topics like the four Rs of precise plant nutrition as well as innovations in soil health, and soil and plant diagnostics and metrics to optimize nutrient management. 

IFA, along with a broad range of its members from around the globe, will be a part of these discussions.

In addition to developing specialty fertilizers, several fertilizer companies are also looking at digital ag and how the industry can use data-driven information to provide better fertilizer recommendations. Digital ag is one of the many tools that can help farmers implement the four Rs, which contributes to a greater uptake of nutrients by the crop.

“There are many ways to tackle environmental losses,” says Hebebrand, “A number of the start-ups pitching their ideas at the Showcase have a plant nutrition focus, ranging from in-field soil nutrient sensors to biological fertilizers and digital fertilizer recommendation platforms.“ 

One of those companies is Teralytic, which has developed a wireless probe that contains 26 sensors. The company says the information being collected provides the most detailed soil quality data available reporting soil moisture, salinity, and NPK at three different depths, as well as aeration, respiration, air temperature, light, and humidity. 

“It would be an alternative to soil testing and would be a major breakthrough if it works well,” she notes. “Innovative solutions like these can play an important role in helping us implement the concept of the four Rs."

Another company, Pivot Bio, has developed nitrogen-producing microbes. These microbes grow with the plant spoonfeeding the crop daily nitrogen at its roots.

Patented technology from Phospholutions retains, captures, and reuses phosphorus that would otherwise end up downstream and affect water quality. 

Excitement about new solutions is not always matched with swift grower uptake.  

“Technology adoption can lag behind,” Hebebrand says. “My impression is that we may be putting out too many new solutions, and farmers are understandably wary about whether they will improve his/her bottom line. There may be concerns about an overload of data, so it’s very important to translate the many layers of data in a way that is really accessible to the farmers. Greater harmonization among digital tools might also be helpful.”

The other hesitation is return on investment. “They may require real proof that adopting these tools will, at the end of the day, enhance their profits, because it's one thing to say you improve your environmental performance, but they also have to make money. Ideally, those two things would go hand in hand.”

Yet, farmers really won’t know whether or not a new technology will help them unless they take a risk and try it for a few years in their operations.

In order to bring about ever more sustainable plant nutrition, Hebebrand believes many actors have an important role to play and ideally everyone should be spreading the same message.

“The Ag Innovation Showcase provides an opportunity for us to interact with players from across the value chain who are either offering solutions or have an interest in solutions in the plant nutrition space. All players along the value chain need to have a dialogue about how best to promote sustainable plant nutrition, so everyone is working toward the same goals,” she says. “That’s important not only for the whole value chain, but also for global agricultural supply assurance and for sustainable development.

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