April 2015

April 29th, 2015

"Thousands of years ago, agriculture began as a highly site-specific activity. The first farmers were gardeners who nurtured individual plants, and they sought out the microclimates and patches of soil that favored those plants. But as farmers acquired scientific knowledge and mechanical expertise, they enlarged their plots, using standardized approaches—plowing the soil, spreading animal manure as fertilizer, rotating the crops from year to year—to boost crop yields. Over the years, they developed better methods of preparing the soil and protecting plants from insects and, eventually, machines to reduce the labor required. Starting in the nineteenth century, scientists invented chemical pesticides and used newly discovered genetic principles to select for more productive plants. Even though these methods maximized overall productivity, they led some areas within fields to underperform. Nonetheless, yields rose to once-unimaginable levels: for some crops, they increased tenfold from the nineteenth century to the present.

Today, however, the trend toward ever more uniform practices is starting to reverse, thanks to what is known as “precision agriculture.” Taking advantage of information technology, farmers can now collect precise data about their fields and use that knowledge to customize how they cultivate each square foot.

One effect is on yields: precision agriculture allows farmers to extract as much value as possible from every seed. That should help feed a global population that the UN projects will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Precision agriculture also holds the promise of minimizing the environmental impact of farming, since it reduces waste and uses less energy. And its effects extend well beyond the production of annual crops such as wheat and corn, with the potential to revolutionize the way humans monitor and manage vineyards, orchards, livestock, and forests. Someday, it could even allow farmers to depend on robots to evaluate, fertilize, and water each individual plant—thus eliminating the drudgery that has characterized agriculture since its invention.


The U.S. government laid the original foundations for precision agriculture in 1983, when it announced the opening up of the Global Positioning System (GPS), a satellite-based navigation program developed by the U.S. military, for civilian use. Soon after, companies began developing what is known as “variable rate technology,” which allows farmers to apply fertilizers at different rates throughout a field. After measuring and mapping such characteristics as acidity level and phosphorous and potassium content, farmers match the quantity of fertilizer to the need. For the most part, even today, fields are tested manually, with individual farmers or employees collecting samples at predetermined points, packing the samples into bags, and sending them to a lab for analysis. Then, an agronomist creates a corresponding map of recommended fertilizers for each area designed to optimize production. After that, a GPS-linked fertilizer spreader applies the selected amount of nutrients in each location."

Read more from Foreign Affairs.

April 14th, 2015


4R Nutrient Stewardship

A Policy Toolkit

March 2015

International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA)

Optimized use of fertilizers by farmers around the world is necessary for food and nutrition security and for safeguarding natural resources and ecosystems. The fertilizer industry has taken up nutrient stewardship as a priority area of work in support of this fact.

Fertilizers of  an  organic  or  mineral  nature replenish  soil  nutrients  removed  after  each  harvest, provide  nutrients  to  plants  so  they  can  grow  bountiful  crops,  ensure  higher  agricultural  yields  and thus make an important contribution to food security. Utilizing fertilizers to increase productivity of existing arable land helps slow down encroachment on forests and natural habitats, thereby making an important contribution to biodiversity preservation and climate change mitigation.

The  benefits of  nutrient  stewardship  include  reduced  environmental  impact,  increased  productivity and  biodiversity  preservation.  More  judicious  use  of  fertilizers  by  farmers  also  enables  them  to improve  farming  profitability.  One industry  framework  seeking  to  achieve  these  outcomes  is  4R nutrient stewardship.

Read more from IFA.