6 Plant Nutrient Management Tools and Techniques that Can Help Protect Biodiversity

Biodiversity is fundamental to the well-being of people and the future of our planet. Global efforts and concrete actions are required to halt its continuous decline.

Plant nutrients contained in mineral and organic fertilizers are essential for life on earth. They are critical for the health of soils, plants and animals, help maintain ecosystems and contribute to the production of nutritious food for our growing global population.

Both excessive and insufficient fertilizer use can negatively affect the ecosystem and natural habitat balance.

Applying too many nutrients to fields can affect biodiversity on the farm, off-site and globally. At the same time, an insufficient supply of nutrients can also impact biodiversity by creating low-yield-driven agricultural expansion which can lead to habitat loss, land degradation, soil erosion, increased GHG emissions and human-wildlife conflict.

So how can we ensure that farmers can grow enough food to feed the world while also protecting its biodiversity? One important way is to improve nutrient management. Here are 6 tools and techniques that can help:

4R Nutrient Stewardship

By reducing nutrient losses to the environment and improving productivity on existing farmland, the 4R approach to nutrient stewardship is central for achieving sustainable plant nutrition.

The 4R framework involves applying the right nutrient source at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place so that fertilizer use can be managed to achieve economic, social and environmental goals set by stakeholders.

By granting farmers’ agronomic knowledge of site- and crop-specific fertilizer best management practices organized in these four areas of nutrient management, they are empowered to increase their yields and income, while improving the health of their soils and protecting biodiversity and the broader environment.

Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture involves a growing range of digital technologies to make farming more efficient while increasing crop yields and quality.

A variety of precision ag tools support the 4Rs by helping farmers to precisely monitor and meet crops’ nutrient needs, such as: soil sensors, variable rate prescriptions, yield maps, decision support software, soil mapping, multispectral imaging, auto-guidance systems and leaf colour charts.

By applying fertilizers in a more precise manner to grow more food on existing farmland while reducing nutrient losses to the environment, precision agriculture can help protect biodiversity both locally and globally.

Sustainable Intensification

Plant nutrition management can be used to improve crop yields, resulting in sustainable intensification on existing farmland. This can avoid the potentially huge biodiversity losses that arise when natural ecosystems are converted to farming systems.

Farmers worldwide are increasingly paying more attention to sustainable intensification practices that are suitable for their farms, and which are also increasingly required by buyers, processors, sellers and consumers of food.

Sparing natural ecosystems from conversion to agricultural land is probably the biggest biodiversity impact of sustainably intensifying farming, for which plant nutrients are hugely important. Modelling shows that by closing current yield gaps through spatially optimizing fertilizer inputs and cropland use across the globe large areas of land could be returned to nature.

Soil Fertility and Conservation Management

Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) involves combining mineral fertilizers, available organic inputs and improved seeds with knowledge on how to adapt them to local conditions to improve soil health, maximize nutrient use efficiency and improve crop productivity.

ISFM is particularly important for avoiding the conversion of ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa, where poor soil fertility affects smallholder farmers’ ability to grow enough food, and which is projected to have a population of 2.7 billion by 2060. While crop productivity has increased elsewhere in the world, staple food production in Africa has not kept pace.

Soil conservation management involves using practices such as cover crops, reduced tillage and buffer strips to help increase soil resiliency, reduce erosion and runoff, and improve water quality. These practices can help protect biodiversity near farms by ensuring that less nutrients are lost to the surrounding aquatic systems.

Fertigation

Fertigation is the process of applying fertilizers dissolved in water through irrigation systems to supply plants with their daily water and nutrient needs in precisely the right form, rate, time and place.

By using fertigation, farmers can apply precise amounts of the fertilizers most suitable for their local conditions to produce high quality crops and yields while at the same time enhancing water use efficiency and minimizing nutrient losses.

Fertigation can help protect biodiversity by producing up to 90% nutrient use efficiency, resulting in very few nutrients being lost and by helping farmers achieve high crop yields even in marginal or arid zones, helping to avoid land conversion.

Slow-Release, Controlled-Release and Stabilized Fertilizers

Controlled-release fertilizers are physically encapsulated in a polymer coating, slow-release fertilizers break down gradually to release plant available nutrients, while stabilized fertilizers use inhibitors that slow nitrogen cycling in the soil.

These products can be used to extend the release of nutrients and better match crops’ requirements, resulting in improved nutrient uptake and less nutrients being lost to the air and water.