Background

Mineral fertilizers are essential to feed the current and future world population. Biologically fixed nutrients and processes in natural ecosystems are insufficient to support the production volume needed to feed an fertilize-map-1024-NEW.jpgever-increasing world population. Globally, fertilizer use can be too high (e.g., East Asia) or too low (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa). 

Overuse of mineral fertilizers contributes to environmental damage while underuse leads to degradation of agro-ecosystems and declining agricultural productivity. Moreover, lack of access to or knowledge about fertilizers might trap farmers in a cycle of poverty and hunger. The interactive graphic to the left (click through to National Geographic's website) shows that the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers in China, for instance, has been estimated at about 12 megatons (Mt) without penalizing yields. If that amount of fertilizer was applied to the 170 megahectares (Mha) of land in Sub-Saharan Africa (about 70 kg/ha), yields would double.

Proper governance of the use of mineral fertilizers can resolve some of these shortcomings. Development organizations, including VFRC’s host institute, the International Fertilizer Development Center, CGIAR, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations (CSOs), farmer organizations and an increasing number of private enterprises are engaged in resolving issues pertaining to availability, access, use and governance of fertilizers. Additionally, there is an urgent need to seek more effective fertilizers and technologies to overcome environmental problems. Search pathways for innovative fertilizers and fertilization technologies should be based on a backbone of fundamental state-of-the-art knowledge. This will prevent haphazard interventions and allow systematic search for innovative solutions to leapfrog the agro-technical, environmental and socio-economic hurdles associated with fertilizers.

 

Nitrogen and Phosphorus Flows

Fertilizers are obtained from mining or industrial processing to be applied to the soils for plant uptake. In principle, inert forms of nutrients like  N2 and ores are converted into reactive forms for biological activity.

While the nutrients are meant for the plants to be taken up, most of the nutrients end up in the environment. Recycling wasted nutrients are therefore “end-of-pipe” solutions. Developing methods to directly place reactive nutrients in the plant, e.g., through foliar sprays or “infusions,” will dramatically reduce losses to the environment and associated adverse effects.