The topic of fertilizers is not one that routinely lights up the room during conversations, if indeed it makes it into conversation at all. Unless we work in this industry or those adjacent to it, most of us have probably spent hardly any time at all considering fertilizer, and that’s no wonder – it can be hard to see what relation it has to our daily lives.

However, one only needs to look a little closer, and fertilizers’ intimate connection to our very existence becomes clear. For example:

  • Without mineral fertilizers, half of the world’s population would not have enough to eat.
  • Without mineral fertilizers, the foods we eat would contain insufficient essential nutrients to ensure we are adequately nourished and able to lead fulfilling, healthy lives.
  • Without these fertilizers, soils around the world would become less productive and crop yields would be reduced, leading to the conversion of more land to agriculture, with associated climate change impacts and damage to already fragile ecosystems and biodiversity.

So the benefits of mineral fertilizers are obvious – but unfortunately their use has drawbacks too.

The three main macronutrients we are talking about when we discuss mineral fertilizers are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Plants need these three macronutrients – or varying combinations of them – in order to be healthy, to grow and to nourish us through our food.

Two of these three nutrients – phosphorus and potassium – are mined commodities, and they are subject to the same constraints and issues pertaining to the environment and to society as any other mined commodity. These could be issues of community consent for mining operations and environmental regulation, for example. These are not inconsiderable matters, but reducing the carbon footprint of these two commodities is less pressing than it is for nitrogen.

When it comes to nitrogen, the picture is different. Nitrogen fertilizers are manufactured using a 120-year-old chemistry process called Haber-Bosch which is dependent on a large amount of energy to produce ammonia (the intermediate for producing nitrogen fertilizers), and this energy primarily comes from fossil fuels. The carbon footprint of nitrogen fertilizer products (that carry nitrogen to plants) is therefore very high – overall ammonia production accounts for about 1.3% of global CO2 emissions, with 70% of these attributable to nitrogen fertilizer production.  

And for all mineral fertilizers, we also have another environmental consideration to take into account, which is the emission of greenhouse gases through the use of fertilizers on the farm. It is estimated that mineral fertilizers contribute to around 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  

This brings us to a dilemma that again has relevance to us all – how do we continue to feed the world, while addressing the environmental impacts of fertilizer production in the factory and use on the farm? One cannot be prioritized over another; we must address these two imperatives simultaneously.

So what is the industry doing to address these challenges?

Starting in the factory, there are a number of options. Instead of utilizing fossil fuels for ammonia production, we can turn to renewables where available to produce ‘green’ ammonia. This can be done, but we don’t have anything like the scale of renewable capacity currently to fully replace fossil fuels in this process. This is why some countries such as the United States have incentivized through regulation the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels leading to a product referred to as ‘blue’ ammonia.

The US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has led the world in this respect, and at a time when we have a growing global population and increased demand for nitrogen fertilizers, we need a range of approaches in order to achieve global food security and sustainability objectives.

When it comes to the use of fertilizer on the farm, farmers across the world are facing different challenges. To understand these, it is helpful to look at a farm and its soils as analogous to a bank account. Farming takes nutrients from the soil, in the same way as withdrawals from our bank account reduce the money remaining in the account. If we do not deposit more money into our account, eventually we run out and we are in trouble. If farmers do not replenish nutrients in the soil after each harvest, eventually the soil will be unable to support productive and nutritious crops. This is called ‘soil mining’ and it is unsustainable from a yield and an environmental point of view.

The situation we see globally is that some soils are over-fertilized, some are under-fertilized, while some others receive the right rate but using inefficient application methods. This is also unsustainable, since over-fertilization and inefficient fertilization can harm ecosystems in addition to creating more greenhouse gas emissions, while under-fertilization causes farmers to convert more land to agriculture to attempt to produce the food they need. We need to protect the natural environment and prevent important habitats from being turned over to agricultural use, so this is where IFA and the industry advocates for a site- and crop-specific approach to fertilizer application.

A key metric for tracking fertilizer management performance is nutrient use efficiency – the proportion of the nutrients applied to a crop that is taken up by that crop.

Technology helps optimize nutrient use efficiency. It’s likely that we will soon see a model through which fertilizer use can be tailored to every type of soil and every crop for every hectare under cultivation, using sensors, satellite, digital and other technologies to enable farmers to understand exactly what is required by a particular crop at any given time.

There is much to be done to ensure that we can feed the world sustainably, and although it is a complex challenge, the fertilizer industry is focused on taking actions to reduce emissions while also ensuring fertilizer is delivered to the right place at the right time through global markets and supply chains. This has been complicated further in recent years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ever-more-complex geopolitical situation which has impacted both the availability and affordability of fertilizer products.

All these challenges prove that we cannot take our eyes off the ball. Billions of people depend upon our industry to live, and to thrive into the future in a stable climate that supports agriculture at scale.

So although it may not be a common conversation-starter, the fertilizer industry has an important responsibility to us all – wherever we are in the world.