Driving sustainability in the agri-nutrients industry
Patrick Heffer, Deputy Director General, International Fertilizer Association, and speaker at the 11th GPCA Agri-Nutrients Conference, highlights the role of the agr-nutrients industry in supporting the agriculture sector with the efficient and sustainable use of fertilizers. From educating the farmers on Nutrient Stewardship, to partnering with all relevant stakeholders involved to drive impact.
How are sustainability and climate change challenges impacting food production and what can the agri-nutrients industry do to help achieve global food security, while also ensuring its products are sustainable and protect biodiversity?
As any sector, agriculture has to become more sustainable and meet emerging societal expectations. Producing enough nutritious food, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, maintaining or restoring soil health, preserving biodiversity, maintaining water and air quality, reducing water wastage are some of the objectives that farming will have to meet. Multiplication of those objectives and interactions between those make farming increasingly complex. It will require more than ever access to knowledge, technology, markets and finance.
The agri-nutrients industry’s main responsibility is helping farmers to use plant nutrients more sustainably, whether of mineral or organic origins, for instance by developing improved fertilizer products, best management practices integrating all nutrient sources, and site- and crop-specific decision-making support tools. Further, it should partner with all relevant stakeholders to increase impact.
One of the ways in which the industry can help support farmers is by raising awareness about Nutrient Stewardship. What is Nutrient Stewardship and why is it important to educate the farmers about this important practice?
Nutrient stewardship refers to the efficient and effective use of plant nutrients.
From a farmer’s perspective, nutrient use efficiency is the proportion of the nutrients applied (from all sources) that are taken up by the crop. It is calculated as the nutrient output/input ratio, i.e. the proportion of the nutrients applied that end up in the harvested product. Nutrient use efficiency is highly influenced by the way mineral fertilizers, other nutrient sources, crops and soils are managed.
While improving nutrient use efficiency is an important goal, it should not be to the detriment of other key performance areas such as crop yield, soil fertility and water productivity, which reflect the effectiveness of the farming system.
Best management practices in the four areas of nutrient management (applying the right nutrient source, at the tight rate, at the time, in the right place) recommended to farmers for their site- and crop-specific conditions provide options to improve overall nutrient management performance. Understanding and applying these best management practices is knowledge intensive. For a meaningful impact, it requires major outreach efforts from all stakeholders in a coordinated manner.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact food security globally and what are the effects of the pandemic currently?
The pandemic has affected, and is still affecting supply chains for most commodities. It is also true for agricultural commodities, and it has been exacerbated by widespread adverse weather conditions in some of the main cropping regions in 2021, and the rebound of China’s demand. Consequently, international prices for most crop commodities are currently well above historical trends.
In its latest assessment of food insecurity in the world, FAO estimates that the number of hungry jumped from 8.4% of the world population in 2019 to 9.9% in 2020. The COVID pandemic explains, at least in part, this increase, reflecting on recession, lower income and deteriorating access to food in many developing countries.
Nutrition is also impacted by the pandemic as the poor reduce their consumption of more expensive nutrient-rich food products.
What responsibility does the agri-nutrients industry have to collaborate with governments and the value chain to improve agricultural productivity? In your view how can this be achieved?
Food insecurity is widespread in Africa and South Asia. Increasing agricultural production is a priority for these two regions with fast-growing populations if governments don’t want an increased food import dependence.
In Africa, where the average application rate is as low as 15-20 kg nutrients per hectare, it is urgent to increase fertilizer consumption. The agri-nutrients industry must work hand-in-hand with regional governments and other stakeholders to improve availability, access to and affordability of fertilizers, including the right fertilizer formulations with the right advice for their profitable use.
In South Asia, application rates are much higher than in Africa but nutrient use efficiency is and remains very low. Policy is a major obstacle to adoption of more efficient fertilizer products and application practices. The agri-nutrients industry should engage with governments and farmers organizations among others to create an enabling policy framework.
What is the role of investing in R&D to develop more innovative and sustainable agri-nutrients with improved performance and application?
Improving nutrient management performance and reducing the yield gap in smallholder farming systems entails scaling up adoption of existing technologies and practices. It is mostly a last-mile delivery challenge.
In contrast, in highly performant agricultural systems, improving technologies and practices is a must to get closer to the yield potential, which is determined by crop genotype. Optimizing the management of crops, water, pests and diseases, soils and nutrients is key to minimize further the yield gap.
In the plant nutrient space, site- and crop-specific formulations, including secondary and micronutrients are a must to eliminate nutrient-related yield penalties. Products such as slow- and controlled-release and stabilized fertilizers can enhance nutrient use efficiency over their “conventional” counterparts. Applications methods such as fertigation and foliar sprays are also highly efficient. To enhance further nutrient use efficiency, biostimulants and microbials are increasingly added to mineral fertilizers. Finally, digital technologies and sensors help develop more precise plant nutrition recommendations.
These special products and improved practices are research-intensive and require significant R&D investments mostly by the industry as this is an area that attracts limited public sector funding. At the same time, while still modest, we see an increasing number of agtech start-ups developing innovative options for plant nutrition, especially in the fields of digital farming, microbials and nutrient recycling.
There can sometimes be a negative view of agri-nutrients or a lack of understanding among the public about their benefits and contribution to growing our food safely and sustainably. What is your view on this? What are the environmental and human health benefits of agri-nutrients and how can we raise more awareness about these?
Plants, like any living organisms, cannot grow without nutrients. If the soil nutrient pool is not sufficient to achieve the farmer’s yield objective, nutrients must be added to the system, otherwise, crop yield will be limited by one or more nutrients. Also, nutrients removed by crops must be replaced in order to maintain soil health.
It is not nutrients per se that have environmental impacts (e.g. eutrophication of aquatic systems), it is their inefficient use. When properly used, plant nutrients sustain high crop yields, help minimize deforestation and other land use changes, and can help sequester carbon in agricultural soils by building soil organic matter.
Responsible use of plant nutrients can go beyond optimizing crop yield and minimizing environmental impacts. Crops can also be fertilized to improve human and animal health. For instance, application of micronutrients can increase zinc, selenium and iodine density in grain, an effective option to address deficiencies of those nutrients in humans, as illustrated by the success stories with zinc in Turkey and selenium in Finland.
Communicating on these benefits, which are often ignored by policymakers, the human nutrition and health community and the general public, is a must. The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit offers a unique opportunity in this respect.