No fertilizer panic – for now

Supplies for 2016 seem healthy, but there’s no time like today to lock in your needs

Six years ago, the International Plant Nutrient Institute calculated a timeline for the world’s known reserves of key nutrients. It suggested we’ve got lots of breathing room, including 55 years for N-based fertilizers, 235 years for potash, 696 for phosphate, and a virtually inexhaustible supply of sulphur.

Of course, as we use up some of the easiest to access supplies, there could be price increases, warned Dr. Paul Fixen, the institute’s research director.

But thanks to wise stewardship and the kinds of agronomic gains we’ve gotten used to, Fixen said, we shouldn’t be losing any sleep.

Six years later, however, the global agricultural landscape has changed. Commodity prices have soared — and fallen almost as fast. World production of grains and oilseeds has exploded, with enormous expansion still possible in Brazil, Africa and other regions.

Should we be concerned about whether we’ll have the nutrients to grow those crops?

Today’s answer from the insitute is balanced. Should we be concerned? Maybe.

Should we panic? No.

That’s according to Dr. Tom Bruulsema, Guelph-based phosphorus program director for the institute. World reserves remain high, Bruulsema says, and any issue with nitrogen availability is limited to the cost of fuel (natural gas) extraction.

Even so, says Bruulsema, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be planning for the future today.

“While the commercial fertilizers we use today are made from finite natural resources, reserves and resources for the future are considerable,” says Bruulsema. He adds that phosphate rock reserves still span several hundred years globally and that potash reserves, including the large portion found in Canada, are stable for the foreseeable future. “Nitrogen fertilizer is made from the nitrogen in the air — which is abundant — but the finite resource currently used in its production is natural gas. Reserve-to-use ratios for natural gas are probably smaller than those of phosphate and potash, but the development of shale gas over the past 10 years shows how quickly estimates of reserves and supplies of materials can change.”

Bruulsema believes a multi-pronged focus can keep up with global crop production.

The 4R Stewardship concept (the right source, rate, time and place for nutrient application) will improve economic, environmental and social sustainability, he believes, and it will also help keep agriculture in line with restrictions on greenhouse gases.

“Accounting for the impacts of a nutrient source needs to consider both its negatives and what it’s contributing in terms of productivity,” says Bruulsema. “Currently about half the global human diet is furnished by Haber-Bosch nitrogen, so while there is the opportunity to improve use-efficiency of N fertilizer, its use is highly justified.”

Down on the farm

The world’s supply of fertilizer is an issue, but not as urgent as is addressing the environmental impacts from nutrient losses.

The world’s supply of fertilizer is an issue, but not as urgent as is addressing the environmental impacts from nutrient losses.
photo: File

The focus on world reserves and supply of fertilizers comes at roughly the same time as our renewed focus on soil health and overall sustainability. Innovators and early adopters are providing valuable insight into practices that promote improved soil health with everything from the use of cover crop blends to any secondary reductions in fertilizer and inputs that come as a result.

Bruulsema believes more can be done. Farmers, farm organizations, and industry, together with the research community, all have a role to play not only in outreach and education, but also in a collaborative approach in establishing specific targets and practices.

To help achieve that goal, the Ontario Agri Business Association (OABA) is developing a strategy informed by consultation among its members. Also, the Ontario Certified Crop Advisors Association is going ahead with a 4R Nutrient Management Specialty, adapting a similar initiative developed for the U.S. with its focus on major sustainability issues including water quality, air quality, greenhouse gases and resource depletion.

“The right time to start is now — putting it off will not put us ahead,” says Bruulsema. “While we might wish for higher commodity prices to help fund the larger investments, there is plenty that can be done with smaller investments of time and resources. Paying attention to the 4Rs can often increase the profitability of nutrient use, and improving soil should be obvious — it benefits the producer.”

From Bruulsema’s perspective, the world’s supply of fertilizer isn’t as urgent an issue as the environmental impacts from nutrient losses, particularly water quality in relation to nitrogen and phosphorus and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Food security is also urgent,” Bruulsema says. “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that there are 780 million people in the world who are undernourished.”

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