What are fertilizers?

Fertilizers are food for plants: they provide the essential nutrients that they need to grow and thrive.

In addition to carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which they get from the atmosphere and water, plants need 14 essential nutrients for their growth and health, which fertilizers provide.

These are: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), sulphur (S), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), boron (B), molybdenum (Mo), chlorine (Cl), nickel (Ni). Additional elements may be essential to a few plant species, e.g. sodium (Na) and cobalt (Co).

Learn more from the infographic below:

19 Essential Nutrients for Improving and Protecting Plant Health


Food and Nutrition Security

Fertilizers are used across the globe to support sustainable agricultural production, and it is estimated that half the food we eat is produced thanks to mineral fertilizers.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. However, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), estimates more than 8.9 percent of the world population (690 million people) were undernourished in 2019.

The challenge is to increase harvests of nutritious food, while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The fertilizer industry recommends prioritizing sustainable intensification (growing more food on the same amount of land with reduced effects on the environment) as one of the most resource-efficient solutions to managing land use and avoiding further deforestation.

COVID-19 and Beyond: Responsible Plant Nutrition for Food Security and Human Health


Human Nutrition

Fertilizers are much more than agricultural inputs: by growing crops for human and animal consumption, they help provide essential calories, proteins, vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, antioxidants and other bioactive compounds of importance for human nutrition and health.

They play a key role in reducing micronutrient deficiencies in people: the fertilizer fortification of staple food crops with micronutrients (also known as agronomic biofortification) has alleviated deficiencies in zinc, selenium and iodine in communities around the world.

The fertilizer industry supports policies that link agriculture, nutrition and health, and the use of micronutrients where they are needed most.

Read more about these issues here:

Re-thinking the Role of Plant Nutrients


Micronutrients: How Fertilizers help to address the problems of hunger and malnutrition


Soil Health

Fertilizers play an important role for soil health. They supplement the natural supply of soil nutrients, build up soil fertility and compensate for nutrients taken by harvested crops or lost to other factors which locally-specific nutrient use management can mitigate.

Fertilizers also help build carbon sinks in agricultural soils, by improving their carbon to nitrogen ratios and maximizing their biomass production, which results in higher levels of soil organic matter (SOM) and soil organic carbon (the core element of SOM).

This process is significant for climate change mitigation, as soils represent the largest pool of carbon on land: they can store up to 50-300 tons of carbon per hectare.

Most agronomists agree that optimal nutrient management entails starting with on-farm organic sources of nutrients and then supplementing them with manufactured fertilizers to achieve the farmer’s yield goal.

Read more below:

Integrated Plant Nutrient Management


Types of fertilizers

Plant nutrients can be provided by mineral, organic or organo-mineral fertilizers, as well as through natural processes such as biological nitrogen fixation or the weathering of soil minerals.

The fertilizer industry produces mineral or manufactured fertilizers. A wide range of products supplying one or more essential mineral nutrients are available to farmers.

Growers can combine their fertilizer applications with plant biostimulants—a tool for sustainable agriculture. Plant biostimulants are products that contain substances or micro-organisms that stimulate the natural processes of plants and soils that lead to benefits such as better nutrient uptake, more resistance to abiotic stress such as high temperatures, and improved yield and crop quality.

Discover more about biostimulants in our backgrounder:

An Introduction to Biostimulants


Fertilizer Facts

IFA has developed the Fertilizer Facts Series to share some information on the important issues shaping the industry in a simple and straightforward way.

This is a tool designed to enhance knowledge of fertilizers and our industry. Feel free to download them, and share them with your own networks.

TitleYearRestrictedDate PubDownload
Fertilizer Use in Sub-Saharan Africa. How Far Are We from the Abuja Target? - Read More ... 2015Public3/30/2015Download4925e85a0bba-f889-4c5f-b351-334347a8bf4e
Phosphate Supply: What you Need to Know to Understand Current Trends - Read More ... 2015Public2/2/2015Download49187f57d6c9-b2f4-4eef-bb03-2486909b4c65
Charting the Way to Optimal Performance. Environmental Performance Benchmarking for the Fertilizer Industry - Read More ... 2014Public11/18/2014Download489150a7412a-1f22-444a-a067-4a85325d11b8
Nitrogen Use Efficiency in Different Parts of the World - Read More ... 2015Public10/26/2014Download4889545f9c54-2171-4a18-8119-54d745e1882d
Nitrogen Production: Why Energy Feedstock Trends Are Important - Read More ... 2014Public9/16/2014Download488651f326fc-e64f-4507-83a0-31b2afab8bb3
Ammonia Production: Moving Towards Maximum Efficiency and Lower GHG Emissions - Read More ... 2014Public7/23/2014Download4882c5382689-c584-4beb-817e-c93bb6da02ac
Fertilizers Are Crucial for Closing the 'Yield Gap' - Read More ... 2014Public5/21/2014Download4824582fa7ab-0f40-40b2-a62b-c61976f254ac

IFA Publications

Fertilizers and their Efficient Use
Nutrient Management Handbook