The future of fertilizer

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Farmers have long known one of the best ways to increase crop production is to add nutrients to the soil. Development and adoption of concentrated synthetic fertilizers, along with plant breeding, irrigation and other technologies, helped fuel the Green Revolution during the middle of the 20th Century.

However, growing demand for food and biofuels in coming years could challenge our ability to produce enough nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to support higher yields, according to a new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). Efficient use of nutrients, and recovery and recycling of nutrients from farm and non-farm sources will need to continue to improve, say the authors of the report titled “Food, Fuel, and Plant Nutrient Use in the Future.”

Key points in the report include:

  • With a growing population, dwindling arable land, and an increased demand for biofuels, the world cannot count on an expansion of harvested area to fill the demands.
  • Grain production will need to increase by approximately 50 percent during the next four decades. Current U.S. growth rates in cereal yields should meet 2050 demands, but greater yields per unit land area require increases in fertilizer nutrient use, advances in genetics, and improved soil and crop management technologies.
  • Per-capita consumption of calories will stabilize during the next 40 years, but the composition of diets will change substantially. Consumption of cereal grains will stabilize, while global consumption of meat and dairy products will increase by more than 30 percent.
  • In developed countries, the increase in consumption of animal products over the next 40 years will be a modest 8 percent, but in developing countries it will increase by 70 percent.
  • Although cereal consumption among humans will stabilize in developed and developing countries, total cereal consumption will increase substantially due to increased feed use.
  • In the United States, removal of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from soils has been increasing, and there is a need for increased fertilizer use and more recovery and recycling from farm and nonfarm systems. Commercial fertilizers are responsible for 40 to 60 percent of current U.S. food production.
  • Additional nutrients removed from cropping systems as a result of bioenergy production will intensify the need for more balanced P and K budgets. The Future P and K fertilizer use will need to increase or more nutrients will need to be recovered and recycled.
  • If nitrogen use follows the trend of the last 20 years, it will increase 44 percent by 2050. Improved N use efficiency could lessen this increase but likely will not eliminate it.
  • Nitrogen-fertilizer production uses N from the air and fossil fuels such as natural gas to create ammonia. The ammonia is then either directly applied or used to manufacture other N fertilizer products. Development of new natural-gas sources and resulting lower gas prices likely will reverse the trend toward higher nitrogen prices.
  • Commercial phosphate fertilizers are processed from mined P2O5 rock. The United States currently is second only to China in P2O5 rock production and contributes more than 15 percent of the world’s phosphate mining.
  • Based on rock value, cost of extraction, and 2009/2010 mine production, the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated U.S. P2O5 reserve life at 53 years. However, those estimates increase if higher phosphate prices make additional mineral resources economically viable.
  • Potash (potassium oxide) is also mined from extensive geological deposits. More than one-fourth of the world’s K2O production comes from Canada, and nearly half the world’s known K2O reserves are located within its borders. World K2O reserve life is estimated at 353 years at 2009/2010 production levels.
  • The world supply of raw materials needed for fertilizers should be sufficient to meet anticipated growth in demand. Future P and K needs in the United States will be met to an increasing extent by imported raw materials or final products, whereas future N needs could be met primarily by North American production.

The full report is available free as a download or in print from the CAST website.

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tony newbill    
powell butte ore  |  March, 19, 2013 at 09:30 AM

We can achieve this goal of supply expansion if we incorporate alternative feed growing systems into the production and reduce the use of farmland for feed production . then you can use existing farmland for more Cereal Grain production . This system will accomplish the feed production alternative because its a 1 to 5 ratio of grain to feed in 6 days , as a energy base , And relocate as much fruit and vegetable production into controlled environment facilities will further expand the use of farmland to grow cereal grain volume that only farmland can accomplish , This would expand the way we grow the fresh produce supply ,

tony newbill    
powell butte ore  |  March, 19, 2013 at 09:32 AM

I am sorry the website link is

tony newbill    
powell butte ore  |  March, 19, 2013 at 09:35 AM

Check it out they are already getting started in Japan, Canada and the USA ,

December, 27, 2013 at 10:35 AM

Americans tend to oversimplify everything. One of the tragedies of the Green Revolution is that the food we have produced in recent decades tends to leave consumers hungry; cravings for more complex nutrients contribute to our country's epidemic of obesity, leading to diabetes and a host of other degenerative ailments. When we (and our livestock) are mainly corn fed and our corn is fertilized with basically three nutrients, we crave more food. Even the poor in this country, being mainly grain-fed, tend to be fat. Plants, including the cereal grains, corn, and soybeans that make up the majority of the standard American diet, need a wide range of nutrients from the soil in order to pass them along to the animals and human beings that consume them. By feeding our plants artificially manufactured nitrogen, mined phosphates and potassium, the Green Revolution focused almost exclusively on quantity (along with profit) and left behind much of the complexity and quality that was once a natural part of our daily food. By feeding livestock diets high in grains and giving them no access to green plants for the last three or four months of their lives (or their entire lives in the case of chickens and hogs) we eliminate or drastically reduce highly beneficial nutrients like omega 3s, conjugated linoleic acid, beta carotene, the vitamin D and E that come naturally from green pasture grasses. We are what our livestock animals eat, and what our fruit trees and vegetables can pull out of the soil. If all crop rotations included equal periods of management-intensive grazing by ruminant animals, our soils would be able to provide the complex nutrients that healthy human beings and their livestock require.

December, 27, 2013 at 10:36 AM

Recommended reading: An Agricultural Testament and The Soil and Health by Sir Albert Howard.

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