Rethinking fertilizer production and application to fight climate change

Brachiaria forage grass, which has excellent BNI properties, could help reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture. The development community needs to find innovations that will boost food production and help curb greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector at the same time. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT / CC BY-SA

Few breakthrough innovations have had an impact on food security equal to that of nitrogen fertilizer. The scientists who discovered how to transform the nitrogen from the air into a vital plant nutrient, were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry nearly 100 years ago, and it is estimated that around 2 billion people have been saved from starvation in the last 45 years from its use. You may not realize it, but around half the food we eat today was grown thanks to nitrogen fertilizer.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around 795 million people are still chronically hungry today, and to meet the food demand of our growing population, food production is going to need to increase by 60 percent by 2050. But the conditions for growing this food are more challenging than ever, given that climate change is already affecting yields across the globe. Fertilizer is going to be crucial for growing food in the face of climate change. But it is also possible to go one step further, and find innovations that will boost food production and help curb greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector at the same time.

Fertilizer production and application currently accounts for around 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the industry is constantly looking for new ways to keep this number to a minimum, with improved nutrient management, precision agriculture and specialty fertilizers playing an important role.

In Bangladesh, for example, the International Fertilizer Development Center has been working to get smallholder farmers access to briquetting machines. These machines produce 1-3 gram briquettes of urea, or blended fertilizer, that get applied 7-10 centimeters deep into the soil using a custom-designed applicator. This “deep placement” of fertilizer briquettes reduces nitrogen loss into the atmosphere or waterways. Deep placement dramatically improves a crop’s absorption of nitrogen — two-thirds is absorbed by the rice grain and straw (postharvest residue), compared with one-third when applied by broadcasting. Nitrogen is released gradually, which better matches the crop’s requirements during the growing season. We have seen yields increase by an average of 18 percent, with greatly reduced losses of nitrogen to the environment.

In the northern state of Haryana in India, another tool is set to transform the way farmers apply fertilizer. Continuing the mantra of enabling farmers to apply the right type and amount of fertilizer, in the right place and at the right time, the “GreenSeeker” is able to use light rays to calculate the health of crops, and tell the farmer how much nitrogen fertilizer is needed.

Not only does this help to calibrate the amount of fertilizer used, but also increase farmers’ profits by $32 per hectare. It’s a win-win for the farmer, and for the environment. Steps need to be taken to ensure that groups of farmers can access this kind of technology as it is presently unaffordable for individual smallholder farmers. This is where cooperative models, that group farmers together are so important, as they can pool resources to buy such technology, and then either loan it to farmers for free, or rent it out at a small price.

Deforestation is an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and since it is often caused by agricultural expansion, fertilizer is our main weapon to reduce it. Converting forests to farmland is estimated to cause around 14 percent of all global emissions, which is equal to, and in some estimates greater than, all other agriculture related emissions combined. But by using fertilizer to make existing farmland more productive, the need to cut down more trees is reduced. In fact, it has been estimated that around 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been saved each year thanks to intensified yields.

Trees and soils are essential for capturing carbon in the atmosphere — in fact, this is where almost 90 percent of agriculture’s potential to mitigate climate change. So innovations that improve farmer access to fertilizer can be considered as carbon saving.

The stakes are higher than ever to feed the world while adapting to climate change and keeping emissions down. Innovations that can tackle these three challenges at once are the game changers we need to secure our future for generations to come.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, Helvetas, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Programme and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Oped abdulrahmanjawahery ed

    Abdulrahman Jawahery

    Dr. Abdulrahman A. Rahman Hussain Jawahery is the president of the International Fertilizer Industry Association and the president of Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company. An engineer of repute and an environmental specialist, he serves as director at the National Safety Council and Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA), and is a founding member of the Bahrain Society for Transfer of Technology.