April 26th, 2019

“Sustainable development is the pathway to the future we want for all. It offers a framework to generate economic growth, achieve social justice, exercise environmental stewardship and strengthen governance.”
― Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

With one third of the world’s land devoted to it, agriculture is crucial both for the millions of farmers who make their living from it and the societies and economies that depend on it.

The current cause of considerable environmental problems, it’s also critical for the future of our planet. In order to meet the growing challenges of climate change, human health, population growth and resource pressure we need to make our agricultural systems more sustainable. Here are some of the reasons why fertilizers are vital for achieving this.

1. Plant nutrients ensure we can grow enough crops for our growing world

Today, half the food we eat is produced thanks to mineral fertilizers, which provide crops with nutrients that are essential for their growth and health, resulting in increased yields and food production.

Fertilizers, managed properly using the right nutrient source, at the right rate, in the rate place and at the right time (known as the 4Rs), are crucial to feeding the growing world population, expected to reach around 10 billion people by 2050, and meeting food security needs. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where fertilizer consumption is the lowest in the world at 2% of the global average, 40% of soils are depleted of nutrients while 243 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

2. Fertilizers can help farmers adapt to climate change and operate in water-scarce environments

Healthy soils and plants can better withstand climate stress than those with nutrient deficiencies. By increasing crops’ resilience, fertilizer best management practice is vital for farmers that need to maximize their yields in good seasons to make up for more severe weather events in bad seasons.

Certain soluble fertilizers can also be combined with irrigation water to provide plants with nutrients and water in the most efficient way possible. This method, called fertigation, can be carried out in arid or semi-arid regions with extremely simplified irrigation systems, preventing water being wasted and helping to reclaim lost farmland.

3. Nutrient management helps mitigate climate change by increasing soil carbon sequestration

Capable of storing up to 50-300 tons of carbon per hectare, soils are the largest terrestrial pool of carbon and represent 89% of agriculture's mitigation potential.

4R nutrient management, alongside best soil management practices such, helps to build up soil organic matter (SOM) since it increases biomass production which allows the increased non-harvested carbon rich biomass (e.g. roots and stems) to return to the ground. This not only improves soil health and productivity but results in more CO2 being sequestered to soils.

4. Fertilizers are key for sustainably intensifying agriculture on existing land

When applied according to best management practices, fertilizers can provide plants with consistent and easily available nutrients while minimizing the risk of losses and the negative effects of their over or underuse.

Applying 4R nutrient stewardship (the right nutrient source, at the right rate, in the rate place and at the right time) has allowed farmers in various regions of the world to sustainably increase their yields, incomes and livelihoods, making the most of their existing land while protecting valuable wild ecosystems.

5. Fertilizers help prevent and reverse soil degradation and desertification

Desertification refers to the extreme degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, primarily caused by human activities and climatic variations, this condition is particularly notable in Africa, where declining soil fertility is linked to declining agricultural productivity.

By restoring and maintaining soil health and fertility, fertilizers used according to best management practices play a key role in combatting desertification, restoring degraded soils around the world and improving the health of farming systems. 

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October 17th, 2017

What if you could capture the fertilizer that washed away with the rain and reuse it on your field? A pair of South Dakota State University professors is studying a way to do just that.

Dr. Laurent Ahiablame, from the department of agricultural and biosystems engineering, teamed up with Dr. Srinivas Janaswamy, from the department of dairy and food science.

Ahiablame has worked with edge-of-field nutrient removal methods, namely the woodchip-filled pits known as bioreactors. Bioreactors use microbes and a carbon source to “eat away” the nitrogen that moves with the runoff through the field’s tile drainage system. “They’re a proven technology to improve water quality,” Ahiablame said.

The microbes release nitrogen into the air as a gas and keep it from polluting lakes and rivers, but Ahiablame wondered if there was a way to capture the nutrient and take it back to the field.

Janaswamy had an idea from the food industry. He believes products used to thicken foods such as salad dressings and ketchup could be used to absorb nutrients like nitrate and phosphorus.

The thickeners in the form of beads – fully biodegradable polysaccharides – would help clean runoff water, but they have another major benefit beyond what bioreactors do today. The tiny beads could be spread across the field where it would release the fertilizer again, this time for the plants’ benefit.

“Humans have been using polysaccharides as gelling and thickening agents for generations,” Janaswamy said.

He’s encouraged at the thought that these biomaterials could be used to help farmers feed the world in a way that’s friendlier to the environment and less expensive for producers.

“That is what we are dreaming,” he said.

The professors aren’t sure it will work like they hope, but studies on the beads over the coming years will help determine if it’s possible. The project recently received funding through a new state program.

Money for the project comes from a 50-cent increase in the fertilizer inspection fee. The Legislature approved the new program in 2016, and the South Dakota Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC) awarded its first round of funding this summer. It’s meant to help improve environmental and water quality through better agricultural practices.

“The main driver is sustainability,” said Bill Gibbons, interim director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station, which helps administer and manage funding for the NREC. “Farmers are very interested in precise placement of nutrients. If any get lost to groundwater or surface water, it’s money out of their pocket.”

The state money funded three other fertilizer-related studies in its first round. One will come up with new nutrient recommendations for oats, updating 2005 guidelines. Another will compare manure and synthetic fertilizer used on cover crops, studying how they each impact soil fertility, water quality and yields. A third study will assess how microorganisms can be used to minimize nitrogen leaching after cover crops are killed by frost.

More funding will be awarded by the end of the year. So far, all projects are being conducted by South Dakota State University researchers, but the funding is open to any university, state, commodity or non-government organization. Gibbons said there’s preference given to South Dakota-based projects.

It’s important to have money dedicated to precise placement of nutrients because it impacts the environment, which affects everyone, he said.

“Farmers – they’re doing their best,” Ahiablame said. But there’s not a perfect way for farmers to control how much nutrients they’re losing, he said.

The beads could be placed in a plastic-lined bioreactor and be used to clean subsurface drainage. They could also be placed in a shallow trench at the edge of the field to capture surface runoff. Once they absorb the nutrients, the hope is that the beads would be applied to the field like fertilizer. The beads would dissolve and leave the nutrients behind.

“They are completely environmentally friendly,” Ahiablame said.

Studies will begin this year in a lab setting. It will be two to three years before they move to the field.

The study’s first step is to learn how much of the nutrients the beads can absorb. There are many other questions after that: How will the water-soluble beads retain their form? At what rate should they be applied to field when it comes time to reuse the fertilizer? How long will it take them to release nutrients in the field?

The professors are looking forward to finding out.

“We really see a bright future for research in this area,” Janaswamy said.

Read more from Tri-State Neighbor


October 9th, 2017

Fertilizers form the backbone of many agricultural processes worldwide. Decades worth of work has been poured into understanding the way in which fertilizers function and the ways in which they can affect the environment. In fact, the process by which bacteria break down nitrogen products in fertilizers to help provide plants with nutrients has found its way into high school textbooks, often accompanied by easy to understand diagrams.

A study led by Prof. Kyle Lancaster, chemistry, however, sheds light on a new found process that suggests that there is more to this nitrogen cycle than previously known.

According to Lancaster, existing biochemical models state that bacteria convert ammonia into an inorganic compound, Hydroxylamine, before turning that into nitrite. Nitrite can then be converted by other bacteria to form nitrate, a vital plant nutrient. Lancaster’s work, however, demonstrates that this conversion from Hydroxylamine to nitrite does not happen in one step. Instead, bacteria create an intermediate compound known as nitric oxide.

The issue with this previously unknown conversion is that nitric oxide, under imperfect conditions, is converted into the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Some nitric oxide accumulates in the soil while the remainder is washed off by rain or through irrigation channels into freshwater bodies. As the compound reacts with oxygen, it forms nitrous oxide.

Though the Environmental Protection Agency says that nitrous oxide accounts for only 5 percent of all greenhouse gases, it has 300 times the warming potential than carbon dioxide. The gas is also a primary ingredient in the formation of acid rain, which can severely damage foliage.

“Understanding how the model works is the key to finding a solution that maximizes crop production without much environmental consequence,” Lancaster said.

The new discovery has immense implications for the fertilization industry. A better understanding of the process of nitrification helps us pinpoint inefficiencies in current agricultural practices. Because the formation of nitric oxide reduces the amount of time that plants have to absorb nitrogen compounds, Lancaster points to future research that could create inhibitors to slow the process by which the compound is created.

Lancaster also highlighted a number of practical implications of the study. Because producers are now aware of this intermediary step, they can tweak their fertilizer application schedule to provide crops with more time to uptake vital nutrients.

On a larger scale, the study also points to the importance of revisiting the nitrogen cycle as a whole in an attempt to better understand each step. A better view of the nitrogen species that form in wastewater could, for example, be used to make water treatment methods more effective and efficient.

For now, Lancaster and his team are trying to understand the particulars of the conversion from nitric oxide to nitrate, specifically if there are other enzymes involved.

“We have spent most of our attention on carbon dioxide because our nitrogen footprint is much more complicated. There are so many different forms of nitrogen and all have dire consequences to the environment,” Lancaster said. “Nitrite, nitrate, nitrous oxide. You count them all. It’s hard to talk about nitrogen in a condensed way because all species of it are important.”

Read more from The Cornell Daily Sun

June 13th, 2016

"LONDON (ICIS)--Participants in the fertilizer market are still reeling days after a ban was imposed by Turkey on all fertilizers containing nitrates, with many calling the move a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the government.

"I am mad about the decision. This means no import as well, at least till further notice. For ammonium nitrate, I can understand the ban [AN is explosive]. But for calcium ammonium nitrate and potassium nitrate, they [the ministry] really do not know what they have done," a Turkish supplier said.

On 8 June, the Ministry Of Agriculture and the Ministry of the Interior (security affairs) banned the sale or distribution of ammonium nitrate (AN), calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) and potassium nitrate with immediate effect.

The move comes following several car bomb attacks in Turkey this year amid fears AN can be used to make explosives. There is confusion surrounding the ban on CAN since it is not an explosive.

What has upset the industry in Turkey and outside is that the ban was introduced out of the blue without any consultations. The government has banned all fertilizers containing nitrates without determining if the fertilizer is explosive or not.

The annual market for AN and CAN in Turkey is around 2m tonnes. The country also has a large domestic industry based on AN and CAN fertilizers. As for potassium nitrate, Turkey has no production domestically. It imports potassium nitrate from Israel or Jordan."

Read more from ICIS.

June 8th, 2016

Contributed by Dr. Raymond Hoyum, President, Advantage International and Dr. T. Scott Murrell,Director, IPNI North America Program

Knowledge Doubling Curve

Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today things are not as simple. Different disciplines have different rates of growth. For example, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.  According to IBM, the build out of the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. 

Agriculture is no different. Growers are constantly challenged by the huge body of information available to them.  Agronomists and growers alike have long recognized the value of using all the tools available to them in developing a high yield efficient crop production system.  For example, over 20 years ago, growers recognized the value of sharing information with their peers through the formation of local MEY (Maximum  Economic Yield) Clubs. 

In many areas of the US, in recent years those early concepts have evolved into grower/retailer/consultant/researcher partnerships known as Research Networks. Today, growers are expanding their contacts nationally, as well as, internationally.  With new social media tools, growers continue to expand the circle of influence.

June 8th, 2016

Contributed by Dr. Thomas Jensen, Director, IPNI North American Program

Don’t forget the weather experienced during a crop year has the greatest effect on crop yields. Crops need sunlight, warmth, moisture, and nutrients to grow. When crops are grown under rain fed conditions, the only need we can supplement is nutrients by adding fertilizers and livestock manures as appropriate. 

Access to irrigation allows addition of water if moisture is in short supply, but we can’t do much if rainfall is excessive. The reality is that farmers are at the mercy of the weather. Most of the time the weather is conducive to reasonably good crop production, but sometimes we receive insufficient moisture, and or warmth, and crop yields are poor. 

In contrast there are those extraordinary crop years when all the crop needs are supplied in just the right combination. For example, 2013 was an example of one of those extraordinary crop years, as experienced in the Western

Canadian Prairie provinces.  In Alberta the average yield of all wheat types was over 58 bu/A. This is the highest average wheat yield experienced from 1962 through to 2013. The average for the previous 9 crop years, 2004 through 2012, was just over 45 bu/A, so considering the past 10 years the 2013 crop year was 29% higher yielding than the average of the previous 9 years. 

Read full version here.


June 8th, 2016

Contributed by Dr. Clifford S. Snyder, Director, IPNI Nitrogen Program

Higher crop yields place increased nutrient-supplying pressures on the soil. It is well known that crop roots absorb nutrients from the soil solution through root interception (as roots explore new soil volumes), mass flow (as water moves through soil pores), and diffusion (as nutrients move in the soil solution from a zone of higher concentration to alower concentration) processes. 

Soils with higher fertility levels are better able to supply plant nutrients during times of environmental stress and also during peak crop uptake demands. Wise, economic additions of fertilizer and/or manure help replace the available nutrients removed from the soil by crop harvests, erosion, leaching, and other losses. Neglecting such nutrient replenishment leads to declines in:

1) soil fertility, 2) crop productivity, 3) cropping system resilience, and 4) indices of soil health; which threaten sustainability.

Soil testing is a very important tool in assessing current levels of soil fertility, and in monitoring changes over time; an essential sustainability practice. However, soil testing is not a perfect tool …. and experienced agronomists know that they should also use complementary plant tissue analyses, as well as estimates of crop harvest nutrient removal, to assess and manage optimum plant nutrition in each field and sub-field area.

Read full version here.

May 26th, 2016

"Some experts believe the wildfires at Fort McMurray suggest we should become accustomed to major disasters that may be linked to the long-term effects of climate change. But the stakes are different in the Prairies. According to a recent study from the University of Winnipeg, the Prairie region represents a unique case around the world.

The study reports that the Canadian Prairies could be the most affected area in the world over the next few decades. Jeopardizing our breadbasket makes climate change the most serious threat to our food security.

Learning that climate change will affect agriculture is not overly surprising, but the expected pace is jaw-dropping. The Manitoba-based report suggests that summers in the Prairies will become hotter and longer. Using a Prairie Climate Atlas, a group of scientists predicted that over the next 50 to 60 years the climate picture is not pretty. For example, the atlas predicts Winnipeg could see 46 days a year of temperatures over 30 C, a frequency which is four times what the city experiences now. Currently, Winnipeg experiences 11 days of 30 C weather on average a year. For Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon the number could grow up to seven times current averages.

These are desert-like temperatures, similar to what one finds in Texas, or even in Mexico. And yes, fire-stricken Fort McMurray is likely to experience warmer and dryer weather in the future.

These are staggering statistics. More heat and less moisture will compromise our ability to grow our agrifood economy. But also, other than farmers, reports on climate change suggest that the most vulnerable to climate change include people and families with less means and indigenous communities. Food will likely become less affordable and the ability for some remote regions to grow food will be negatively affected."

Read more from The Globe and Mail.

May 12th, 2016

"WEST - In an extraordinary turn for one of the ATF's most labored and expensive fire investigations ever, the agency said Wednesday that the deadly blaze that destroyed West Fertilizer Co. in 2013 was a criminal act, and it pleaded for the public's help to find who was responsible.

The news immediately opened old wounds in this small, agricultural town north of Waco, reignited rumors, frustrated residents trying to move on with their lives and threatened to complicate a mound of litigation against the plant and its suppliers.

Anticipating questions about why it has taken three years, Special Agent in Charge Robert Elder outlined the meticulous nature of the investigation.

Investigators for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent more than $2 million, building life-size replicas of parts of the plant and interviewing more than 400 people, to reach the conclusion that the fire was set in the seed room, Elder told reporters. Victims' families were briefed hours earlier. The news conference was held at the Knights of Columbus Hall that served as an aid station in the blast's immediate aftermath.

'Your loss is felt by ATF," Elder said. "It has been a driving factor into why we have gone to the lengths and detail that we have.'

No arrests have been made, he said, and the investigation remains open."

Read more from Chron.

April 19th, 2016

"The Dallas Morning News says its investigation found that many of the agricultural supply and feed stores that used to stock a lot of ammonium nitrate have stopped selling it and others have implemented safeguards like moving the chemical out of dilapidated buildings and into fire-resistant concrete structures. But it reports many recommendations by safety investigators have gone unheeded.

None of the sites that responded to newspaper inquiries reported installing sprinkler systems. The state does not require them, but the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has said such a system could have stopped the West accident before it became a fatal explosion.

And despite calls for keeping stockpiles of ammonium nitrate away from populated areas, in up to eight communities tons of the chemical still sit near schools, houses, nursing homes and even a hospital, according to the newspaper's analysis of state data."

Read more from Houston Chronicle