Editorial Feature

The Global Fertilizer Challenge: Developing Sustainable Solutions to Boost Productivity

Agriculture is one of the largest industries globally, occupying approximately 40% of the world’s available land. Due to the rapid surge in the global population, agricultural production must be increased.

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Image Credit: encierro/Shutterstock.com

To meet this demand, farmers often use harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides.1 Many of these chemicals have detrimental effects on the land. They also pose risks to human health when exposure is prolonged.

Sustainable agriculture has emerged as a potential solution for improving crop yield without affecting the environment.

Conventional Agriculture vs. Sustainable Agriculture

While conventional agricultural practices utilizing chemical fertilizers and pesticides may enhance crop yield, they deplete natural resources (including soil fertility).

The extensive manufacturing and utilization of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers have positioned the agricultural sector as a significant contributor to environmental pollution.2

For instance, the overuse of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers causes large nitrous oxide emissions. Beyond greenhouse gas emissions, conventional agricultural systems contribute to soil erosion and a reduction in water quality—whereas sustainable agricultural practices protect the soil and restore the ecosystem.

Sustainable agricultural strategies primarily focus on enhancing crop production without adversely affecting soil, water resources, and the environment.

This agricultural practice encourages the use of biofertilizers, vermicomposting, green manure, and practicing mixed cropping and crop rotations for soil nutrition and pest management. It also promotes precision agriculture and water-saving agronomic systems.

Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizer (EEF) is a relatively new term that describes the development of new fertilizers with control release. Unlike conventional fertilizers, the EEF is designed to minimize nutrient losses to the environment. The application of EEF, coupled with next-generation technologies, presents a sustainable solution to reduce the environmental impact of chemical fertilizers.

A sustainable agricultural system aims to prevent soil erosion, enhance carbon sequestration, improve soil fertility, increase resilience to extreme weather, and promote biodiversity. Considering these positive effects, farmers worldwide are encouraged to adopt sustainable solutions to improve crop yields.

Significant Challenges in Implementing Sustainable Agriculture Solutions

Numerous obstacles impede the implementation of sustainable agriculture. For instance, this agricultural practice relies heavily on external inputs for short-term output, which may impact stability in crop yields.

The limited adoption of innovative technologies, particularly by smallholder farmers, and uncertainties associated with the rapidly changing climate further inhibit the global application of sustainable agricultural solutions.

Climate change introduces various challenges, including irregular rainfall distribution, an increase in mean temperature, and flooding. Climate change and variability have significantly affected many developing countries, such as sub-Saharan African countries reliant on rain-fed agriculture. 

The limited application of advanced irrigation practices, such as water harvesting and drip irrigation, makes developing countries vulnerable to unpredictable climate changes.

Drip irrigation, developed in response to Israel’s severe water scarcity problem, is a technology that conserves water and prevents water loss through drainage.3

A study has forecasted a potential decline in crop yields of 6–33% in Ethiopia between 2030 and 2050, attributed to climate changes and ineffective implementations of technology.4 This highlights the need for increased support to developing countries, especially in comparison to developed countries, to promote sustainable agriculture and food security.

Global Initiatives in Developing Sustainable Fertilizers

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has collaborated with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to introduce next-generation fertilizers, aiming to boost agricultural sustainability in the US. The EPA-USDA has also partnered with other organizations to develop sustainable fertilizers.

These organizations connect stakeholders, including university researchers, fertilizer companies, and farmers, to effectively develop and implement sustainable solutions.5

The UK government remains committed to addressing food security challenges by promoting sustainable solutions to agricultural problems.6 The government supports CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), the world’s leading agricultural science and innovation organization.

CGIAR has helped increase crop resilience to climate changes and pathogenic infestations, promoting food security for millions worldwide. 

In 2023, the Farming Innovation Programme focused on bringing together farmers, businesses, and researchers to enhance agricultural production and promote environmental sustainability. This program, backed by a £51 million grant, has supported farmers with assessing soil health patterns and applying of harvesting agri-robots.

In the UK, over £168 million in grants are available to farmers to implement innovations that could promote crop yield without adversely affecting the environment. Recently, the UK government collaborated with its American counterpart, investing £3 million in the Global Fertilizer Challenge.

Launched during the UK’s Presidency of COP26, this funding aims to support the development of alternative fertilizers that contribute to sustainable agriculture and enhanced crop productivity. 

New alternative fertilizers must be cost-effective, augment crop yield, and be environmentally beneficial. An effective and environment-friendly fertilizer could also mitigate the food security crisis, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, without hampering the environment and natural resources.

This grant will further contribute to the UK’s efforts to help small-scale farmers protect the environment from harmful chemicals (without increasing their production cost and compromising the crop yield). This collaboration presents an opportunity to exchange knowledge on climate-smart agriculture.

Perceptions suggest that sustainable solutions and clean technologies could improve crop production and safeguard the environment. The primary objective of the UK-US collaboration is “to make climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture the most attractive and widely adopted option for farmers everywhere by 2030.”7

Similarly, the UK, the UAE, Canada, and Kenya have also announced their participation in the Agriculture Breakthrough, a program focused on developing sustainable fertilizers.

Numerous fertilizer companies have collaborated and shared their resources and innovations for improved outcomes.

For instance, a Canada-based agricultural technology start-up, CoteX Technologies, has collaborated with Nutrien, the world’s largest agricultural service company, to develop cost-effective nitrogen fertilizers in the North American market.8 FertigHy is the new member of the European fertilizer industry, focusing on developing affordable and low-carbon fertilizers for European farmers.9

References and Further Reading

  1. Brooks, J., Deconinck, K., Giner, G.. (2019). Three key challenges facing agriculture and how to start solving them. [Online] OECD. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/agriculture/key-challenges-agriculture-how-solve/.
  2. Shennan, C., et al. (2017). Organic and Conventional Agriculture: A Useful Framing? Annual Review of Environment and Resources. doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-110615-085750.
  3. Zerssa, GW., Hailemariam, M., Tadele, KT. (2023). Improving the Sustainability of Agriculture: Challenges and Opportunities. IntechOpen. doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.112857.
  4. Zewdu, E., Hadgu, G., Nigatu, L. (2020). Impacts of climate change on sorghum production in North Eastern Ethiopia. African Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. doi.org/10.5897/AJEST.
  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2023). Next Gen Fertilizer Challenges. [Online] United States Environmental Protection Agency. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/innovation/next-gen-fertilizer-challenges (Accessed on December 16 2023).
  6. Department for Environment., Food & Rural Affairs., Rural Payments Agency., Forestry Commission. (2023). Funding for farmers, growers and land managers. [Online] GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/funding-for-farmers (Accessed on December 16 2023).
  7. Department for Environment., Food & Rural Affairs., Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office., The Rt Hon Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP., The Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP. (2023). UK leads the way on agricultural innovation at Washington D.C. Climate Summit. [Online] GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-leads-the-way-on-agricultural-innovation-at-washington-dc-climate-summit (Accessed on December 16 2023).
  8. Morrison, O. (2023). Fertiliser giant Nutrien reveals new partnership to explore sustainability solutions. [Online] AgTechNavigator. Available at: https://www.agtechnavigator.com/Article/2023/12/12/fertiliser-giant-nutrien-reveals-new-partnership-to-explore-sustainability-solutions (Assessed on December 16 2023).
  9. FertigHy. (2023). FertigHy, a new player in low-carbon fertiliser production, launched to accelerate decarbonisation of food value chain. [Online] FertigHy. Available at: https://fertighy.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/230623-FertigHy-press-release-v10.0_share.pdf. (Assessed on December 16 2023).

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Dr. Priyom Bose

Written by

Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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