When a farmer has access to the right kind of fertilizer, the rewards can be great. She will see a dramatic improvement in the yield she can get from her land. In the world’s poorest countries, this will mean the difference between her and her family going to bed hungry or with a full stomach. With an estimated 805 million people in the world still undernourished, fertilizer can play an important role in the fight for food security.
But like always, actors all across the fertilizer value chain need to constantly innovate to ensure that fertilizers are being used optimally and correctly. This means not only the right kind and rate of fertilizer but also using it at the right time and in the right place. In some areas of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa, this means an increase in fertilizer use, while in others it may mean more efficient or precise use. The goal is to maximise fertilizers’ benefit to farmers while keeping costs to a minimum and managing against any unwanted environmental impact.
This “balancing act” is going to require vast investment and on-going training to constantly improve. Such innovation is already underway.
Efficient application and production
Nitrogen sensors can now be mounted on tractors, which will measure a crop’s nitrogen requirement as the tractor passes across the field. The sensor then varies the fertilizer application rate. This precise method of application reduces the amount of nitrogen released into the atmosphere, whilst significantly improving yields.
Sophisticated geo-referencing tools such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) along with good soil diagnostic tools, also allow farmers to use variable nutrient application rates within any given field. These tools significantly advance agriculture’s ability to protect watersheds and reduce gaseous emissions.
Even the production of fertilizers presents an opportunity to reduce energy expenditure. Technological innovations at fertilizer production facilities have improved overall energy efficiency by as much as 25 per cent.
Fertilizer’s role in improving human health
We no longer talk about food security, but rather food and nutrition security. Fertilizers can play a key role in boosting the levels of nutrients a crop receives, that humans will in turn receive when they eat the crops. Products such as Actiwave®, a naturally composed “biostimulant”, can help significantly increase the absorption of microelements such as Manganese and Zinc in plants. Zinc deficiency is a major problem in developing countries, and kills over 450,000 children each year; innovations such like this can go a long way to fighting this “hidden hunger”.
Biostimulants may also be used to help enhance the nutrient content of crops; an example is Megafol Protein®, a novel composition from Valagro, which can be applied to wheat to support the plant’s metabolism and significantly increase protein content.
Reaching rural farmers
Innovative approaches to reaching remote rural farms are also working. The public-private partnership the Ghana Grains Partnership, of which industry leader Yara are a key partner, provides seeds and fertilizers on affordable credit terms to over 8,000 smallholder farmers, as well as storage and transport facilities, helping to reduce loss and increase profits. Public-private partnerships are proving to be incredibly effective, as they marry the efficiency and expertise of the private sector with the local knowledge and needs on the ground from the public sector. The Sustainable Agricultural Initiative of Nestle (SAIN) is another great example, which links value chains with sustainability and good quality performance metrics.
But even more must be done if we are address the scale and complexity of the challenges which the world is facing.
First, we need to motivate and incentivize the industry to innovate. This can be done by demonstrating that producing cheaper, more efficient fertilizers and novel sustainable release formulation will not only generate benefits for people and the planet, but also yield a good return on investment to the manufacturers as well as the end-user.
Secondly, we need to define the metrics of success in order to track progress. This cannot be done without good baseline data, so gathering this will be vital. Measures of adoption of technology could include (in addition to market share and increased demand) qualitative and quantitative measures of productivity enhancement, cost to benefit ratio, and overall health of plants or consumers as well as soil health measures.
Finally, we must improve the access to these novel tools and information on how to use them to the farmer and thus increase adoption. Increased use of newer dissemination tools such as use of mobile phones, digital media in addition to farmer-to-farmer communication as well as innovative community training programs will further accelerate adoption.
By taking these three steps, future fertilizer innovations will play an even greater role in the food and nutrition security of our global population than ever before.