Fertiliser Focus, January/February 2019 edition

Are enhanced efficiency fertilizers the answer to feeding the world?

Few innovations have had as great an impact on society as nitrogen fertilizer. Yet I am struck by the extent to which this incredible discovery is often taken for granted. The Haber-Bosch process made modern ammonia-based fertilizers possible and, following the subsequent development of products that enabled more nitrogen to reach plants as they grew, enabled farmers to achieve huge increases in crop yields.

You might think, therefore, that fertilizers would make every list going of the ‘greatest innovations ever.’ However, in many recent articles attempting to sum up man’s greatest achievements, one learned author after another seems to prefer the printing press, the compass, electricity, transistors, antibiotics, steel and even paper currency — and, of course, the internet.

I am not going to say these are not important innovations in their own right, but fertilizers are often nowhere to be seen, despite the fact that about half the food we produce on Earth is grown thanks to nitrogen fertilizer.

It was gratifying, therefore, to read a recent blog post by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates (www.gatesnotes.com) about his obsession with fertilizers. As he says, he has never been shy about his passion for fertilizer:

«It’s a magical innovation that’s responsible for saving millions of lives from hunger and lifting millions more out of poverty by boosting agricultural productivity.»

So why doesn’t everyone share Bill Gates’ enthusiasm? Do we in the industry even extol the virtues of our own products enough? Perhaps, like others, we take our amazing innovation for granted because we work with fertilizers day in, day out. If that is the case, we need to stop and recognize the innovative contribution that our industry has made — and must continue to make – to society.

For we certainly cannot stop innovating. The well-known forecasts of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization are a stark reminder of the progress we must continue to make.

Boosting food production

Some 795 million people are still chronically hungry today, the UN asserts. And to meet the food demands of a fast-growing population set to reach 9.7 bn by 2050, we are going to need to boost food production by around 60% by then. It is a very tall order.


Just how tall an order it is occurs to me whenever I meet colleagues in the fertilizer industry during the course of the year at congresses and other events. Why? Because the question of how we will manage this amazing feat is never far from our lips.

Of course, some will suggest that evergreater use of fertilizer is a solution, but this is not really a viable option, because it comes at a cost. While most of us accept that fertilizers will remain a vital part of the equation in growing food in future, there are few who believe its use can continue unabated in the face of climate change.

In fact, there are plenty of us in the research community who believe we must go further and find innovations that will ensure we do not just enable farmers to keep improving yields, but also help to curb the environmental footprint of the agricultural sector at the same time. In the face of mounting environmental considerations as society recognizes the risks of climate change, the answer is therefore not more fertilizer, but better fertilizer.

Pressure groups are not merely supporting calls for such progress in our industry, but demanding it, with some asking regulators and lawmakers to start requiring manufacturers to produce nitrogen fertilizers with compounds that will increase their efficiency and reduce their environmental footprint.

Improving inputs

The widespread use of such compounds could substantially cut nitrogen pollution, improve yields and thereby enable farmers to grow the food the world needs without the environmental impact that might otherwise be expected.

So, if the aim is to achieve further improvements in agricultural output without untoward environmental consequences then improving nitrogen management will be critical. This work has been underway in our industry for years. What appears to be needed now, however, is an acceleration of our efforts.

‘Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers’ (EEFs) represent a breakthrough in our industry, one perhaps worthy of comparison with the original HaberBosch method. This is, of course, more of a cover-all term for the number of alternatives that we in the industry are researching and developing.

On the one hand, some EEFs control nutrient release or influence reactions involved in their use by converting nitrogen into different forms that may reduce their loss to the environment — whether this is through leaching into the ground, denitrification through nitrous oxide emissions into the atmosphere or the loss of nitrogen in the form of ammonia gas.

The use of EEF inhibitors — such as nitrification or urease inhibitors, which are designed to control nitrogen metabolism in soil immediately minimizing the effects of leaching and the evaporation of nitrogen. Nitrification is a process where bacteria convert ammonium forms of nitrogen into nitrate. With new technologies, nitrous oxide (N2O), a gas which contribute 296 times more per kilogramme to climate change than carbon dioxide (CO2), is originated as a side product of the conversion of ammonia to nitrate and emissions can reduced by 80%. The addition of compounds to nitrogen fertilizers can substantially reduce the rate at which this happens. Likewise, urease inhibitors restrict the conversion of urea to ammonium, so it reduces losses of ammonia volatilization. Both technologies can be combined on urea fertilizers, closing all possible gaps for nitrogen losses.

So there are varied approaches to the task of developing products that help farmers manage nutrient delivery to crops. All this research and development comes at a cost and in the highly price-sensitive market in which we operate, the challenge is to show there is a convincing cost-benefit analysis for farmers.

Tackling climate change

Scientists can make the case for EEFs appear resounding, but the results of laboratory analysis, field trials and product literature are often not enough. Translating the academics’ say-so and marshalling appropriate arguments to win over sceptical endusers remains a challenge.

There is already a growing body of literature that spells out how the agriculture sector can contribute significantly to climate mitigation efforts. In a world where discussion of climate change is mostly less focused on whether it is taking place but on how to tackle it, there is increasing recognition of the role that agriculture can play by reducing its non-CO2emissions. To some degree, the extent to which agriculture will itself contribute to these important reductions will likely depend on how ambitious it decides to be, how much it will cost to do it and whether there are financial incentives available to provide some additional necessary encouragement.

Some incentives will doubtless come in certain markets through regulation. With much research already indicating that EEFs can play a significant role in more sustainable agricultural production, the challenge for our industry will be to ensure that innovation at least keeps pace with these regulations. In fact, we in the industry have a good track record of working with farmers to help them make best use of their fertilizers, ensuring the dissemination of research findings and thereby minimizing any fertilizer mismanagement.

Targeted nutrient application

We have already seen transformative shifts in how the agricultural sector operates. The introduction of new technologies, greater adoption of precision agriculture through tools such as GPS, yield monitors and advanced soil analysis, mean that the farmer is better equipped than ever with knowledge about the existing nutrient levels in their fields. With all this data and other information, farmers are now able to target nutrient application appropriately. This means fewer fertilizer losses to the environment.

Add in the industry’s determination to play its role by encouraging nutrient stewardship and it ensures a focus on delivering a science-based approach to crop nourishment and the best ways to use fertilizers.

EEFs are the latest step in encouraging farmers to manage nutrients. By reducing nutrient losses to the environment and increasing their availability to the plant, they not only represent a science-based answer to the environmental questions being raised by farmers but, at the same time, a solution to the societal challenge we all face — how to grow enough food for the ever-increasing numbers of people inhabiting our planet.

Perhaps if this happens we can expect to see a more positive view of our industry, one fuelled by an acknowledgement that we again reached into science and through our research efforts found an answer to one of the great challenges facing mankind. And maybe then, when we are reading those much-loved ‘top ten’ articles about the greatest innovations of all time, fertilizer will again feature in the rankings

Dr Thomas Mannheim, Head of Global R&D, EuroChem, Switzerland

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