Fertilizers: quality over quantity

Indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals must be chosen with care, says Jørgen Ole Haslestad of the International Fertilizer Industry Association.

Jorgen Ole Haslestad

When considering the sustainable development of our planet, one sector sits squarely at the cross section of protecting natural resources, feeding the world and reducing carbon emissions: agriculture.

Within that sector, it is often the role of natural and especially mineral fertilizers that could yield the greatest benefit, but also attracts the most criticism. 

Fertilizer use will be a critical component of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As successors to the Millennium Development Goals, which have been criticised for being too broad and difficult to track, the SDGs must set forth measurable outcomes to ensure that bold ambitions for a better planet are met.

There is widespread agreement that fertilizer treatment should be more targeted.
Targets and indicators to help meet the SDGs are also likely to encompass the use of inputs as a measure of sustainable intensification, but we must ensure that any such targets are meaningful and can actually be measured.

Ground up investment

Let us consider nutrient use management, for example. The use of fertilizer underpins increasing agricultural productivity. 1kg of fertilizer can boost yields by up to three times, but there is no simple formula for measuring how efficiently nutrients support crop productivity.

What may appear as a seemingly straightforward equation is in reality quite complicated. Due to regional variations there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to fertilizer application methods. Uncertainties, such as temperature, rainfall, application time and soil type make selecting a practice and evaluating its effectiveness difficult.

Optimal application of fertilizer could boost yields in many developing countries.
Each patch of soil all over the world has its own unique recipe for the nutrients it should receive. Educating farmers on nutrient stewardship programmes like the 4Rs – that is, applying the right nutrient source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place – will help farmers use fertilizers so they are not so overused, or misapplied, thus reducing carbon emissions and potentially damaging environmental runoff.

Would charting how many farmers who have been educated on the 4Rs and other nutrient stewardship programmes not be a tangible, effective and measurable indicator for the new SDGs?

Overcoming barriers

According to a recent study, farmers have many concerns when they adopt a new practice, as the SDGs will require them to do. Costs, risks, profit and yield motives are all barriers to adopting new techniques.

However, unlike a policy or effort focusing only on application rate (that only address one aspect of these concerns), the 4Rs and other nutrient stewardship programmes consider environmental impacts (by reducing overuse and misapplication), economic impacts (by making fertilizer application cost effective) and social impacts (by improving livelihoods through a safer environment and increased income).

United Nation's Sustainable Development Knowledge PlatformUN
Work on the new Sustainable Development Goals is ongoing.
Furthermore, a focus on quantitative nutrient use efficiency targets risks being seen as a call for a simple reduction of inputs, leading to complacency in parts of the world that still use woefully little inputs (see ‘The Africa Fertilizer gap’, also on this blog).

We must also keep in mind that although increased nutrient use efficiency is a noble goal, it is just one of several elements of a sustainable food system. A singular focus on nutrient use efficiency must be avoided; it should always be assessed in conjunction with other, complementary indicators relating to crop productivity or soil health. This could mean assessing the productivity per unit of land area or of water, or measuring how fertile the soil is naturally.

Agriculture will play an essential role in the SDGs. The need for increasing agricultural productivity must remain, but reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment will be just as important. The SDG process provides an important opportunity for the global community to focus on this double challenge facing the agricultural sector and for establishing meaningful and measurable targets and indicators.

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About Jørgen Ole Haslestad

Jørgen Ole Haslestad is Chairman of the Agriculture Committee of the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) and CEO of Yara International ASA, a global supplier of fertilizer. Previously he held several senior management positions in Siemens AG and Kongsberg Offshore AS, Norway. He holds an MSc degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH).

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