Keywords: agriculture, fertiliser, fertiliser industry, micronutrients, nutrition, soil fertility, zinc.
Historically, other than the domestication of plants and animals, no agricultural innovation has increased food production capability more than manufactured fertilisers. Over the last seven decades, fertilisers have been crucial to increasing food production, reducing hunger and, with improved seeds and better management practices, creating an agricultural revolution to feed more than 7 billion people.
Of the 17 nutrients essential for plant growth, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are most likely to be deficient and needed in the largest quantities. Improved production and supply chain efficiencies provided farmers with least-cost high-analysis NPK fertilisers, allowing agricultural intensification and surplus production while maintaining soil fertility. However, the availability of affordable mineral fertilisers prompts excessive use in some countries, while high costs in other regions result in underuse. Overuse spawns air and water environmental issues. Underuse stifles yields and degrades soils. Maintaining soil health benefits micro-organisms that support plant nutrient uptake, which some current fertilisation practices adversely affect.
N and P fertiliser products are available in various formulations — often with smaller amounts of secondary and micronutrients. They are largely unchanged from the chemical formulations manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s. As such, even under best management practices, they often result in significant loss of nutrients to the ecosystem with negative economic and environmental impacts. Both N and P fertilisers require complex chemical- and energy-intensive production processes that lock in high economic costs and exaggerate the supply and pricing uncertainties of being a globally traded commodity.
The impressive responses to fertiliser applications for staple crops are now tapering off. Closing yield gaps in high-yielding areas while reducing environmental impacts may not be possible with current fertilisers. Moreover, secondary and micronutrients can greatly contribute to maximum economic yields and improved nutritional value. Fertilisers are key to feeding more than 2 billion additional people by 2050. But given land, water and environmental constraints, we cannot continue to use the same imperfect NPK products.
New, economically viable, products must be developed with nutrient-release properties matching plants’ requirements. To develop innovative fertilisers, investment in research is critical. Yet the fertiliser industry invests very little in research compared with the seed industry. A few companies are developing new products, changing their business models from ‘volume to value’ — selling smaller quantities of more effective and profitable fertilisers. To facilitate this transition, the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) has launched the Virtual Fertilizer Research Center (VFRC) for the development of next-generation fertilisers.
Amit H Roy, International Fertilizer Development Center, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, USA.
24 pages, 16 figures, 32 references