Why add nutrients to food all the time? Why not add them to the soil itself asks Esin Mete.

Esin Mete

As global leaders come together to discuss a new set of development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals, that expire in 2015, the role of food security and nutrition is key in underpinning the development agenda’s future success.

It has been well documented that growth in the agricultural sector can have dramatic impacts in reducing poverty – in fact, at least twice the potential (see p. 6) of growth from any other sector on average, according to the World Bank.

As well, improved nutrition not only extends and improves people’s quality of lives but also plays a significant role in boosting their productivity and sustaining a healthy economy. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that malnutrition alone costs the global economy around $3.5 trillion dollars each year (around 5% of global GDP) due to lost productivity and healthcare costs.

Fortifying foods is accepted practice. Could we go one further and fortify the land? Image: Gates Foundation on Flickr

Fortifying foods is accepted practice. Could we go one further and fortify the land? View the full size image (237KB). Image: Gates Foundation on Flickr

One way my sector can help is to better understand the potential roles that fertilizers can play to tackle hunger and malnutrition. Evidence shows micronutrient fortification of fertilizers – that’s adding selenium, zinc or iodine to the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium usually present – can offer promising results, and not only in the developing world but in the developed world as well.

Micronutrient fortification of nutrient-deficient soils cannot only help boost crop yields but can also improve (see p. 133) the content and bioavailability of these nutrients in plants when consumed by humans.

Boosting yields

In addition to the three ‘NPK’ macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) we add to soil in the form of artificial fertilizer or manure, there are 13 other macro and micronutrients needed by crops to grow. 

Adding nutrients to fertilizers as they are applied to the land could boost crop nutrition. Image: eutrophication&hypoxia on Flickr

Adding nutrients to fertilizers as they are applied to the land could boost crop nutrition. Image: eutrophication&hypoxia on Flickr

And because different regions have varying soil composition, they have unique needs for the types and amounts of nutrients in fertilizers.

In Karnataka State in India, for example, through the Bhoochetana government program in partnership with ICRISAT, fertilizers were biofortified with zinc, boron and sulphur. The results were dramatic increases in yields of the rainfed crops which smallholder farmers were growing: sunflower (345%), ragi (230%), groundnuts (240%), maize (150%), soybean (116%) and sorghum (27%).

Similarly, in my home country of Turkey, a zinc fertilization programme on wheat in the Central Anatolian region resulted in as much as a 500% increase in crop yield, lifting economic returns by around $150M per year).

Feeding people

The application of zinc fertilizers in Turkey also led to the eradication of zinc deficiency among local people. Since crops were able to absorb zinc from the soil, they also had more bioavailability of zinc for the humans who consumed them.

There are other examples besides zinc.

A fertilizer manufacturing plant – the global potential to fortify fertilizers is huge. Image: pheochromocytoma on Flickr

A fertilizer manufacturing plant – the global potential to fortify fertilizers is huge. Image: pheochromocytoma on Flickr

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Finland had one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world, partly due to low intakes of the nutrient selenium in people’s diets. From 1984, the Finnish government mandated the addition of selenium to all multi-nutrient fertilizers in order to help combat heart disease. The results have been profound, with human intake of selenium tripling by 1987 and rates of heart disease continuing to decline to relatively low levels today.

Similarly, in Xinjiang Province in the far west of China, potassium iodate has been added to irrigation canals in order to address iodine deficiencies in the local population. The result was a three-fold increase in soil iodine levels, a 50% reduction in infant mortality and an almost total elimination of iodine deficiency disorders in the area.

Lastly, micronutrient fertilization can also be an effective treatment against plant diseases. For instance, the addition of copper to fertilizers has been shown to be effective in soils prone to ergot, a fungal disease which grows on cereal crops and can cause hallucinations in humans and other illnesses if ingested.

New goals

The complexity of the challenge we face demands a coordinated effort. Micronutrient fertilization is not the only solution, but in my view it does offer a simple, cost-effective and sustainable way for improving food and nutrition security.

Some micronutrient fertilization techniques are particularly promising, such as those incorporating zinc, selenium and iodine. Together with the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) researched and published a scientific report Fertilizing Crops to Improve Human Health: A Scientific Review. It suggests there is the potential to expand the breadth and scale of these programmes considerably. 

The fertilizer industry is working hard in this effort and will continue working with partners to make the ’post-2015’ development agenda a true success.

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About Esin Mete

Ms Esin Mete is the President of the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA), CEO of Tekfen Holding’s Agri-Division and Chairwoman of Toros Agri-Industry Group. Upon graduating from Bosphorus University with a BSc in Chemical Engineering, she committed herself to building up Tekfen Group as a leader on the Turkish fertilizer marker, holding various positions from assistant Vice President (1980-1984) to CEO (2010-present). Mete was instrumental in pioneering zinc fertilization in Turkey, her company being the first partner of the government in providing zinc-supplemented NPK fertilizers in Central Anatolia.

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