IFA, Director General
The average man or woman on the street would be hard pressed to name even one fertilizer company, since they do not encounter them in their everyday lives, unlike, the names of major food processers and retailers. He or she might also be hard pressed to define fertilizers, and may refer to them as “having something to do with GMOs or pesticides.” The end consumers of fertilizers, however, know a lot more about fertilizers and rely on them to provide plant nutrients required for increasing agricultural yield: farmers around the world have increased their use of fertilizers six-fold between 1961 and 2015 (from 32 to 184 million nutrient tons), to keep up with a population expanding from 3.1 billion to 7.4 billion during the same period. Farmers will surely continue to rely on fertilizers considering that they will be asked to feed a population of close to 10b by 2050.
As if feeding almost 10b is not enough of a challenge, it is also imperative to reduce the environmental footprint of fertilizers which can be significant if they are not properly applied. Zeroing in on the use efficiency of nitrogen (NUE), one of the important macronutrients required for plant growth, while many regions in the world have reached optimal or close to optimal levels of 50-90%, at a global level, NUE – the fraction of nitrogen input harvested as product – has actually declined from more than 50% in 1961 to 42% today. In other regions, however, such as in parts of SubSaharan Africa, NUE is above 100%, which signals that more nutrients are being removed by the crop than provided by fertilizers, leading to nutrient mining and deteriorating soil health.
There are already many ways to optimize fertilizer use efficiency. These can be encapsulated by the “4Rs” of nutrient management – ensuring that farmers are applying the right source of nutrients, at the right rate, at the right time and at the right place. Many tools exist to implement the 4Rs: examples range from soil testing to more recent information technology solutions and sensors which can determine which nutrients are required for a specific crop; more tailored fertilizer products or blends including just the right balance of nutrients; special fertilizer products that are water soluble, or fertilizers which release nutrients to better match crop uptake. The challenge is to make these products and tools widely available on farms, especially on the 70% which are smallholder farms. There are other promising technologies, such as microbials or biostimulants, and crops may in the future be bred or modified to take up nutrients more efficiently. No doubt innovative plant nutrition solutions will also come from the thriving ag tech start up scene. Nutrient recycling needs to become both more effective and widespread. A changing climate and changing diets also have implications for plant nutrition. Last, but not least, proper incentives must be provided to farmers to promote sustainable plant nutrition.
This agenda is of course very pertinent to the fertilizer industry and the farming sector, but it also involves many other players in the research, development, policy and NGO communities and other industries. We are very excited to convene this multi-stakeholder dialogue to explore the best pathways towards more sustainable plant nutrition and the concrete partnerships and steps required to pursue them.