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Fertilizer use coming under increased scrutiny

The outlook for sufficient food, fuel and fiber over the next 40 years is dismal unless plant fertilizer use is better managed.

Logan Hawkes 1, Contributing Writer

April 1, 2013

5 Min Read

A new study indicates that even if adequate acres for planting and sufficient water to grow additional high production crops were available, the outlook for sufficient food, fuel and fiber over the next 40 years is dismal unless plant nutrient use is better managed.

“The removal of the three primary plant nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — has been increasing, and there is a need for increased fertilizer use and more recovery and recycling from farm and nonfarm systems. Continued advances in nutrient use efficiency will moderate increased nutrient demand,” said Dr. David Zilberman, head of a task force charged with preparing a paper on Food, Fuel and Plant Nutrient Use in the Future for the Council on Agriculture Science and Technology (CAST) in Ames, Iowa.

Zilberman is a professor at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Berkeley.

He says how well we research, plan, and implement the proper use of nutrients in the years ahead could shape how well we will eat in the near future. The paper looks at the processes shaping the current nutrient situation and the resulting requirements as world food production evolves over the next 40 years.

“Current conditions and future trends show that adequate food production will require increases in the use of fertilizer nutrients. 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. Scientists and food producers need to look at the way land is currently used to feed the world’s growing population and look into the best practices for how to move forward,” Zilberman added. 

The study indicates that to meet global food demand, use of genetics to improve crop productivity, promote soil conservation and management, and use nutrients efficiently is necessary.

Because of various circumstances, grain production will need to increase by approximately 50 percent over the next four decades according to the study.

“In the United States, removal of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium has been increasing and there is a need for increased fertilizer use and more recovery and recycling from farm and nonfarm systems. Continued advances in nutrient use efficiency will moderate increased nutrient demand, he said.

The study projects that future food, fiber, and fuel demands will not be met by expanding cropland area. The authors use data to analyze factors influencing crop production now and indications of what is to come. With a growing population and increased demand for food and fuel, research regarding nutrient use, recovery, and recycling is crucial.

Bright future?

He says the question of how to feed mankind by 2050 is very important and brings many concerns to policymakers and researchers alike. The study indicates three major components that deserve special attention based on the world’s current food system: estimation of food needs, availability of land to grow food, and the nutrients required to increase world food production. One model on which to base projections for future food demands is cereal production, because cereals are used not only as a main human source of energy but also in feeding animals that will be consumed as meat and dairy products.

“The United States is and will continue to be a major producer of food for the world in the form of cereals and animal production. Increasing food demands and shrinking agricultural land in the United States and other parts of the world necessitate an analysis of this problem. Moreover, the stress put on food production by increasing oil prices significantly challenges the agricultural system,” he said.

The study says bioenergy has been identified as a major component in developing alternative energy sources in the United States to achieve some level of energy independence, but the use of cereals in the production of bioenergy has created concerns of competition due to the increased demands of cereals to feed the world.

“Increasing population and demand for cereals for food and feed, increasing use of cereals and other agricultural products for bioenergy, and limited land resources require increasing yields on current agriculture land or using land with limited and/or decreased nutrients.” 

The objective of the paper is to obtain a better understanding of the factors influencing future fertilizer nutrient requirements and availability and to identify future policy implications and research requisites including:

  • Population Dynamics. Estimation of population in developed and developing countries that needs to be fed by 2050.
    Food Needs to Sustain the World Population. Increased food demand associated with consumption patterns of cereals needed as food and feed, and the impact on U.S. grain production.

  • Impact of Energy and Biomass Production. Demand of cereals for biofuels as well as the land availability in the United States, and the potential that the production of second-generation biofuels presents, with two scenarios and the impact on environmental issues.

  • Land Use and Productivity. The worldwide demands for land to grow food considering space and soil quality and the need for increased yields based on historical yield increases since 1950.

  • Applied Nutrients and Nutrient Availability. Historical nutrient use of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) and crop removal in the United States, current soil fertility status and trends, future nutrient requirements, and availability of fertilizer raw materials.

Zilberman say now is the time to consider future nutrient problems in agriculture. Despite declining world population growth rates, total world population will still increase nearly 35 percent to more than 9 billion people by 2050.

“Food consumption will rise, the need for more fuel becomes more critical and agriculture efficiency needs to increase proportionately if we want to be able to feed and clothe the world in the years ahead. To make this happen, we need to take steps now to make certain we can keep our soils fertile and our crop production healthy,” Zilberman added.

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