The second volume of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report
“The Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” was released yesterday. It shows the dramatic impacts to be expected in the near future on agriculture and food production patterns Agriculture practices will need to evolve quickly and both farmers and the fertilizer industry will need to innovate. The industry believes that one of the most important actions to building climate-smart agricultural practices is to improve outreach to farmers on correct and balanced fertilizer application.
The fertilizer industry regards farmers – large and small - worldwide as strategic partners since they are the ultimate customers and users of our products. We depend on farmers, big, medium and small, men, women and youth, to use our products appropriately and cost effectively so they can raise their yields, increase their incomes, improve their livelihoods and take care of their soils and the environment.
In my view, the climate change debate around agriculture and fertilizer centers around the following key three questions:How is fertilizer production and use linked to the environment and climate change?
Crop nutrients, whether organic or mineral, are the food that feed the plants, which in turn feed the people. Therefore fertilizers constitute key ingredients for food security. Where soils are degraded and lack the appropriate macro and micro nutrients, yields are dismally low and the nutritional content of crops is deficient, also contributing to poor health for the population. There are not enough organic fertilizers available to meet agricultural demand worldwide. In regions where organic matter and residues are not available because of little livestock and small farm volumes, supplementing with mineral fertilizers is imperative to avoid nutrient mining and soil degradation.
Mineral fertilizers have contributed 40 percent (2)
to the increase of our global food supply in the past 50 years. Moreover, they help us to maximize the potential of our increasingly scarce arable land around the world and thus preserve our forests and biodiversity. Fertilizers facilitate sustainable agricultural intensification. An astonishing 89 percent of agriculture’s future greenhouse gas mitigation potential is based on soil carbon sequestration, and forests of course play a vital role. Farmers therefore play a very important role – with help from fertilizers – to mitigate climate change.
When taking into account the production, distribution and application of mineral fertilizers, it is estimated that fertilizers contribute about 2.5 percent of total global emissions (estimated at 1240 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2007). When you break this figure down, it becomes apparent that the largest part of these emissions occurs at the point of application/consumption of fertilizers: 1.5 percent of total global emissions accounting for 60 percent of fertilizers emissions, compared to 0.93 percent of total global emissions from the production of fertilizers and 0.07 from their distribution (3)
. Emissions from fertilizer use of course have to be evaluated in the context of the need for mitigation.How can we most effectively minimize the negative impacts of fertilizers on the environment?
The fertilizer industry is actively taking steps to reduce emissions of ammonia and nitrous oxide, as well as nitrate leaching and phosphate runoff into surface and groundwater. Some of these steps involve innovation and research that have resulted in new technologies such as:
- foliar application;
- coated soluble granules to allow controlled release of nutrients in the root zone;
- urea deep placement: using super-granules of urea in rice production to improve nitrogen recovery;
- adding inhibitors to slow the conversion of urea fertilizer to ammonia and thereby minimize potential ammonia loss to the atmosphere;
- fertigation: adding soluble fertilizer to irrigation water to deliver nutrients to the root zone in a more precise and timely manner.
In addition to new fertilizer products, the methods of application at the farm level play an important role in the lifecycle of fertilizers. The industry is a strong proponent of the 4R nutrient stewardship framework. This framework conveys to farmers the principles of using the right fertilizer sources at the right rate, right time and right place so as to achieve economic, social and environmental goals. It has been shown that improved management practices such as application rate, timing, and method, plus cover crops and reduced tillage can reduce nutrient losses by up to an average of 30 percent (4)
.What are the common interests that the fertilizer industry and farmers should pursue?
of how to establish best management practices already exists, but we must focus more on how it applies to specific regions and crops and how to better disseminate this type of knowledge among the world’s millions of farmers. By promoting nutrient stewardship at national and regional level, we can safely and sustainably feed a growing population, while reducing nutrient loss to the environment and thus helping mitigate climate change.
Our industry has a role to play in empowering smallholders in Africa, Asia and Latin America to rise above subsistence and become dynamic commercial farmers and we are hopeful that farmers’ organizations can help us in this outreach effort. At a time when most governments can no longer bear the cost of expensive public extension programs, advisory services, training, and sharing of best practices requires more public-private partnerships and greater use of information technology.
In conclusion, sustainable agricultural intensification and climate change mitigation must not be viewed as a trade-off. These two are sides of the same coin. Any sustainable development effort must reflect input from food security experts, environmental scientists, and farmers as food security, the environment, and the farm are inextricably linked. Farmers and the fertilizer industry can and should work together to develop site-specific outreach and training programs in order to ensure that the world’s farmers can continue with the most important task they have of feeding the world, and do so with reduced environmental effects, while becoming more resilient to climate change.(1)
The International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) is a not-for-profit trade association representing the fertilizer industry globally with 545 member companies based in 84 countries–with 50 per cent based in developing economies.(2)
Smil, V. 2002. Nitrogen and food production: Proteins for human diets. Ambio, 31: 126–131cited in FAO (2006).
Fertilizer Use By Crop. Fertilizer and Plant Nutrition Bulletin. 17. Page 3.(3)
IFA (2009). Fertilizers, Climate Change and Enhancing Agricultural Productivity Sustainably. International Fertilizer Industry Association.(4)
IFA (2011). Fertilizer Best Management Practices. International Fertilizer Industry Association.