The Fertilizer Industry and Sustainable Development
Driven largely by a growing population and rising incomes around the world, agricultural demand is expected to continue rising in order to ensure abundant quantities of high-quality food, feed, fibre, energy and even industrial products (like pharmaceutical ingredients or bioplastics).
The foundation of sustainable agriculture is soil fertility , a term that encompasses the soil’s nutrient content, the amount of soil organic matter (SOM), the soil structure, its pH balance and the presence of microorganisms. Most soils lack at least some plant nutrients , and growing crops remove nutrients from the soil. Soil nutrients must be replenished when removed and supplied when deficient. It takes years and sometimes decades for natural processes to restore nutrients in the soil, which means that they no longer suffice to support global agricultural production. Traditional methods for restoring soil fertility, which entail long fallow periods and shifting agriculture into new areas, may contribute to deforestation, given current pressures on land use. Although historically sustainable, these practices no longer suffice to meet the needs of the current and future population levels and density.
Organic sources of nutrients provide fewer nutrients than most people think (and these are not necessarily in plant-available forms), but they are usually excellent for improving other aspects of soil fertility. Inorganic sources (“ manufactured” fertilizers ) contain only plant-available nutrients and therefore have no direct influence on soil structure or the presence of microorganisms. This is why agronomists generally consider it optimal to use both organic and inorganic sources together, a technique called Integrated Plant Nutrition Management (IPNM).
The main nutrients in most inorganic fertilizers — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — come from the land and the air. They exist in nature, but their plant available forms are not abundant enough for the level of agriculture needed to feed and clothe more than 6 billion people.
Nitrogen (scientific chemical symbol “N”) comes from the air. In fact, 78% of the air we breathe is nitrogen, but in a form that plants cannot absorb.
Phosphorus (scientific chemical symbol “P”) either comes from fossilized sea sediments or igneous rocks. It is mined from beds containing phosphate rock.
Potassium (scientific chemical symbol “K”) is found in salts from evaporated sea water. Old deposits are mined from the earth. In some places, potassium is obtained through solar evaporation of potassium-containing brines.
In essence, fertilizer companies convert naturally-occurring N, P and K minerals or composites into nutrient forms that plants can absorb. Often called “secondary nutrients”, sulphur (S), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) are required in significant amounts, although the quantities are less than N, P and K. There are also fertilizer products that supply the micronutrients that plants also require, but in much smaller quantities than the three so-called “macronutrients”.
The mission of the fertilizer industry is to provide enough plant-available crop nutrients so farmers can satisfy the population’s basic needs (food and clothing) and help meet other demands (fibre, energy and industrial raw materials) more sustainably. The fertilizer industry strives to produce and transport its products efficiently and responsibly in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. In the spirit of product stewardship, IFA also promotes Fertilizer Best Management Practices in order to increase fertilizer use efficiency.