Nourish the soil, feed the world
Just like human beings, soil needs nourishment to be productive
IFDC has launched the Virtual Fertilizer Research Center (VFRC), a global research initiative to create the next generation of fertilizers and production technologies. New and improved fertilizers are a critical element in the effort to help feed the world’s growing population and ultimately provide food security, while protecting the environment and ensuring the sustainable use of the earth’s non-renewable resources.
Addressing the challenges of population growth, food security, environmental protection and sustainable use of the earth’s resources
The United Nations Population Division estimates that the global population is more than 6.8 billion and could reach 9.2 billion by 2050. More than 95 percent of the population growth is occurring in Africa and Asia, which already account for three-fourths of the global population. The environmental cost of converting the world’s remaining arable land is continually increasing.
The number of hungry people is nearly one billion – more than one-seventh of the world’s population (FAO). The Asia/Pacific region has the largest number of hungry people – 642 million – followed by Sub-Saharan Africa with 265 million. These numbers were growing steadily before the food crisis of 2008 and the subsequent global economic crisis, which have made the situation worse.
Fertilizers are a key to improving the world’s food security; however, current technologies are deficient in many ways
Fertilizers are critical to improving the world’s food security. Soil fertility rapidly declines when land is used for agricultural production; nutrients are extracted from the soil through crop production and leaching. Fertilizers restore nutrient loss, and therefore stabilize and increase crop yields. It is estimated that 50 percent of the food consumed worldwide results directly from the benefits of nitrogen, the most widely used fertilizer. Other main fertilizers are those that contain phosphorus and potassium. In addition, numerous micronutrients – such as zinc, molybdenum, boron and manganese – are not only essential for plant growth but also essential for human health.
However, the efficiency of currently used fertilizers is poor. Only about one-third of the nitrogen fertilizers applied to crops in developing countries is utilized by the plants due to inefficiency in application (wrong application method or timing of application) and/or the inherent properties of current fertilizer products. The financial cost and waste of the inefficient fertilizer technologies particularly burdens smallholder farmers in developing countries. They pay for three times as many nutrients as their crops absorb, while often being unable to afford sufficient amounts of the right fertilizers. But that does not fully account for the economic cost. The “wasted” fertilizer does not disappear, but becomes environmental pollutants, either in the form of potent greenhouse gas or runoff that fouls streams and lakes.
Fertilizers are not cheap, and their production consumes non-renewable resources. Although nitrogen is abundantly available in the atmosphere, its extraction requires a great deal of energy. The production of one ton of the predominant nitrogen fertilizer product, urea, requires the energy equivalent of four barrels of oil (typically fueled by natural gas, a non-renewable resource). Phosphate is mined but the world’s phosphate resources are finite, and inefficiencies in production and use result in less than 20 percent of the mined phosphate ever becoming part of the food chain. Potassium, the third major nutrient, is also mined (in the form of potash), and although potash reserves are estimated to last at least several hundred years, eventually the question of efficiency in use will also need to be solved.
The majority of the current fertilizer products were developed by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) National Fertilizer Development Center (NFDC) between the 1930s and 1960s. These fertilizers quickly revolutionized agricultural production in the United States and Europe, and were a major component of the so-called Green Revolution – the introduction of high-yielding crop varieties, fertilizers and good management practices – which rapidly improved agricultural productivity and food security in Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1960s, little development of major fertilizer products has taken place, and today the world continues to rely on the products developed at TVA 50 or more years ago.
Renewing the Green Revolution
There are many challenges facing future food production. On a global scale, there are challenges in relying primarily on highly intensive agricultural production systems. These challenges include producing the quantity of food needed given the rapidly increasing population, limited amount of unused arable land and increasing environmental toll of intensified crop production. At a local level, challenges are particularly difficult throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, where the Green Revolution never took place. Smallholder agriculture continues to rely on extensive production with low productivity, poor profitability for farmers and continuous exploitation of new agricultural lands. Agricultural production in both systems will have to be able to produce more with less environmental impact and with fewer of world’s limited resources.
In a January 2008 letter to IFDC President and CEO Dr. Amit H. Roy, the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and father of the Green Revolution, said, “The work of the Green Revolution is not yet finished and I believe it will take a new round of technological advancement, political commitment, commercial development and a lot of hard work to complete the job.” He also provided a road map for extending the reach of the Green Revolution and ensuring sustainable use of resources:
“We need to develop new products that will deliver just the nutrients that the growing plants require and to diminish environmental externalities. We need to invest in this sort of advanced fertilizer research and we need to coordinate it with advanced plant genetic research so that we can achieve synergy between more efficient use of available nutrients by plants and more efficient delivery of nutrients by fertilizer products. And we need to develop systems that can make these products cheaper and more accessible to farmers. We need to cut the cost of food production so that developing country farmers can produce affordable food to feed their growing urban populations.”
In short, the world needs a “new generation” of fertilizer products that make more efficient use of available resources, are more effectively used and do more to protect the environment.
World intellectual capacity to contribute to a new generation of fertilizer technology
IFDC is taking Dr. Borlaug’s challenge by creating the VFRC as a rapid, economical way to tap the world’s intellectual capacity to generate this critically needed fertilizer research. The Center will partner with universities, public and private research laboratories and the global fertilizer and agribusiness industries. The VFRC will bring together the best scientific, business and government minds to create a research system producing more nutritious food with fewer wasted resources and a reduced environmental impact.
Unlike the efforts of TVA’s NFDC, which took place on a single campus in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (United States), the VFRC will link researchers together virtually. Because of the Internet and other communication technologies, scientists worldwide can collaborate on innovative fundamental and applied research. Virtual collaboration will also allow for fast-tracking of this urgent work.
The VFRC will direct and coordinate a long-term international fertilizer research program, emphasizing increased production of nutritious crops, environmental protection and improvements in the lives of farm families in developing countries.
The VFRC agenda is driven by:
- The reduced availability of natural resources and environmental concerns such as the growing scarcity of non-renewable fossil sources of energy, renewable sources of water for human consumption and agriculture, and land suitable for agricultural production
- The growth of more diversified demands for agricultural and industrial products and the associated contamination of air, land and water that growth brings about
- The need for improved food security and poverty alleviation for about 30 percent of the worlds’ population
It is fitting that IFDC is leading the global, virtual search for the next generation of crop nutrient products. In fact, IFDC was created in October 1974 to continue and expand the efforts of the international program of TVA’s NFDC as a center of excellence with expertise in fertilizers to service the needs of developing countries. As the only public organization charged with a role to develop fertilizer technologies, IFDC not only has relevant equipment (including a pilot plant for fertilizer production), but also staffing to oversee the future development efforts.
Global food security depends, at least in part, on more effective fertilizers, as well as focused efforts to improve soil fertility and to increase the productivity and nutritional value of food crops. The VFRC will work to reach an overarching goal – improving agricultural production to make it more economical, efficient and environmentally responsible.
For more information on the VFRC and its work, please contact:
VFRC Executive Director
1331 H Street, NW
Washington D.C. 20005
Proposals Sought for New Fertilizer Technology Development and Commercialization (Taken from IFDC Report Volume 37, No.1)
VFRC Press Releases
Dr. Prem Bindraban Appointed Executive Director of Virtual Fertilizer Research Center
June 29, 2010
February 23, 2010