Making the Case for Efficient Nutrient Management

Written by Yvonne Harz-Pitre, Director of Public Affairs at the International Fertilizer Industry Association and Farming First spokesperson

Partnering to help farmers grow. This was the central discussion point of the World Farmers’ Organisation’s General Assembly this week, where I had the privilege to address some of the most influential actors in making that happen. Farmers not only need support to grow more food for a growing population, but also to grow their own businesses to improve livelihoods and economies all over the world.

The International Fertilizer Industry Association is committed to playing its role in making this a reality. When it comes to food production and yield increase, the general case for the fertilizers is well known. It is estimated that half of the food we eat today is produced thanks to fertilizers. The impact of fertilizers is immediate: within a single cropping season, farm productivity can be doubled and even tripled: for 1kg of nutrients applied, farmers can obtain 5-30 kg of additional product.

Yet not all farmers are feeling these benefits. Despite the commitment by African Heads of State to sharply increase fertilizer use, application rates are still too low: in the Abuja Declaration of 2006, a commitment was made to raise fertilizer use to 50 kg per hectare by 2015. Today, in 2016, the current average rate is still close to 13 kg per hectare according to our estimates- while the global average is over 100 kg per hectare.

There are numerous reasons for this. First, farmers living in remote areas do not have these fertilizers available or easily accessible. Secondly, fertilizer retail prices in sub-Saharan Africa are on the high side compared to the rest of the world, due to poor infrastructure, limited numbers of distribution and retail points and a number of other constraints leading to high transaction costs.

The result is inevitably depleted soils, which farmers abandon. They clear forests and plough new land and the vicious cycle continues. It is however important to stress that the problem of agricultural productivity is not only a question of access to fertilizers (affordability and availability), but also of plant nutrient management.

Poor farming techniques contribute invariably to land degradation in the same way that low, unpredictable rainfall does. When crops are harvested, nutrients are naturally exported from the field with the harvest, and they must be replaced by new organic and mineral sources.

Unless nutrients are replaced, soils are more and more depleted, plant quality declines, yield declines and this leads to undernutrition and hunger. On the contrary, excessive use of nutrients increases risk of leakages, environmental hazards and, ultimately, economic loss for the farmer.

So when we talk about reducing poverty, increasing food production and fostering long-term economic growth, healthy soils are at the core of the problem and an essential key to the solution.

In many areas, the problem of soil fertility depletion represents a greater constraint to food production than drought. It is possible to restore, maintain and enhance soil fertility, in particular in areas where soils are inherently poor in plant nutrients, through a number of recommendations, techniques and management practices.

Mineral fertilizers have a higher nutrient content than organic sources and have well-defined nutrient compositions and are, in most cases, often readily available to crops.

Organic nutrient sources, like livestock manure or crop residues, are rich in organic matter and help improve soil properties such as soil structure and water retention capacity. However, their nutrient content is variable: poor quality feed for livestock will necessarily result in manure with a lower nutrient content.

In view of these respective benefits (and limitations), mineral and organic nutrient sources are complementary. The fertilizer industry advises farmers to use Integrated Plant Nutrition Management (IPNM): applying organic sources available on the farm and supplementing them with manufactured fertilizers to achieve farmers’ yield goals.

But efficient and effective use of plant nutrients also encompasses the need to match the fertilizer source with the soil and crop requirements of each region. Local soil conditions, climatic variations and crop type all determine what works best for a given farm.

The fertilizer industry has developed a framework called “4R nutrient stewardship.” This involves choosing the right nutrient source (fertilizer and/or organic source) and applying it at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.
While the fertilizer industry aims to offer fertilizers that are specifically tailored to individual crops and soils, it also encourages farmers around the world to take carefully into account local soil and crop specific nutrient needs, and to ensure that an adequate amount is applied, at a time when the crop can best access it. The placement must also ensure that the nutrients are intercepted as needed. The 4R best management practices are valid for both mineral and organic fertilizers.

Several techniques and innovative solutions are available to enhance nutrient use performance. For instance, “microdosing” involves applying a small quantity of fertilizer with the seed at planting time or as top dressing three – four weeks after emergence. This technique uses only a tenth of the amount typically used, but as the African soils are so starved of nutrients, this micro amount of fertilizers – about a full bottle cap or three finger pinches – is often all it takes to double crop yields.

These practices cannot be limited to fertilization only: targeted, balanced fertilizer use has to be combined with other practices such as plant protection, water management and overall good land management that aims at combating soil erosion and runoff.

Implementing Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) offers interesting opportunities. For instance, under drought stress conditions, soil covered with organic matter can hold more moisture than soil that does not have mulch. This extra moisture may result in improved uptake of the applied fertilizer nutrients.

While we can conclude that awareness, knowledge, innovative solutions and the use of recommendations that boost productivity exist, the key problem remains: how do we strengthen skillsets and competencies about efficient, effective and balanced plant nutrition management in every region worldwide?

At IFA, we believe that only continuous, sustained and close co-operation with farmer organizations, non-profit organizations, support programs and government bodies will lead the way to enhanced food security and improved livelihoods in rural areas. Only transformative partnerships will provide access to the needed knowledge, equipment, finance, inputs and output markets to all farmers to sustainably produce sufficient quantities of nutritious food whilst protecting the environment.