How can we ensure that health, food systems, and sustainable agricultural systems mutually reinforce one another?

Novel Fertilizers: Role of innovations in plant nutrition for sustainable food systems

Ground Floor A 024 September 6, 2017 11:00 am - 12:30 pm

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Prem Bindraban, International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), United States of America

Session Rationale

Fertilizers have been a principal driver for agricultural intensification feeding over half the world’s population. It contributed to prevent 1 billion hectares of pristine biodiverse lands from conversion into agriculture. Sustainable fertilization and plant nutrition is, and will remain essential for agricultural intensification, but their externalities must be addressed.

Fertilizer overuse causes greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, and leaching into the ground- and surface waters that leads to eutrophication and dead coastal zones. Fertilizer underuse, such as in Africa, causes soil degradation that deteriorates the agricultural production base and farmer’s livelihoods. Organic matter support soils to maintain their productivity, but the amount of organic matter available to sustain soil nutrients is estimated for the African continent at 10-20% of amounts required. This necessitates improve plant nutrition management, including supplemental fertilization to sustain soil health and raise plant productivity.

Despite the negative externalities, only about 0.1-0.2% of industrial revenues are invested in R&D for innovations in fertilizer products, as compared to 10-15% in breeding and pharma. There is an imminent need, therefore, to seek out effective fertilizers and technologies that will leapfrog new development. IFDC calls for a paradigm shift in fertilizer products and technologies[1]. In essence, whereas “lifeless” physico-chemical processes govern the development of fertilizers today, “living” biological processes should now be taken as the starting point for designing novel fertilizers of the future. IFDC for instance finds that small amounts of sulfur, calcium, boron, and zinc can increase yields up to 35% or more across different soils and crops in Eastern Africa. More systematically, novel fertilizers can contribute to multiple societal objectives, including (i.) increased food production, (ii.) increased nutritional content of food, (iii.) improved soil fertility and plant health, (iv.) mitigated GHG emissions and nutrient losses to water bodies, (v.) sequestered carbon in soils, (vi.) enhanced resilience against drought and diseases, and (vii.) improved farm livelihoods.

Yet, awareness about these multiple benefits may be lacking among actors in the food system and remote or resource poor farmers may have no access to fertilizers. Many development organizations will therefore refrain from the use of fertilizers and may argue against fertilizer use in view of potential negative environmental and institutional issues. As improving soil productivity and plant nutrition will remain essential for food and nutrition security, particularly on the African continent, divergent views about fertilization and plant nutrition will be discussed in this session to generate synergies toward sustainable productivity and food systems.


Session format

The objectives of this session are to 1) introduce the multiple societal benefits of novel fertilization and plant nutritional approaches and 2) stimulate a dialogue about the role of fertilization and plant nutrition in support of agricultural production and food systems development that are sustainable, resilient and profitable for farmers.

This interactive session will be introduced with two views on fertilization and plant nutrition followed by a dialogue with the audience. Session Convener will be Michiel Hendriksz (CEO FarmStrong Foundation). Presentations by Prem Bindraban about the multiple benefits of novel fertilizers, and by Beate Huber (FiBL) about Innovation in nutrient management systems. Christina Gruenewald (Swisscontact), Dominik Klauser (Syngenta Foundation), and Jonas Joerin (ETH) will reflect on the presented views from a broader farm perspective, agricultural intensification and food and market systems development. The dialogue will center around the two session objectives and identify tangible projects ideas and actions on novel fertilization.

[1] For scientific justification see: Bindraban, P.S., et al., 2015. Revisiting Fertilizers and Fertilization Strategies for Improved Nutrient Uptake by Plants. Bio. Fert. Soils, Vol. 51 (8): 897-911. Dimkpa, C., Bindraban, P.S., 2016. Micronutrients fortification for efficient agronomic production. Agron. Sust. Dev. 36:1-26. Additional scientific papers and reports: For easy reading: Fundamentals for Systems Change toward Innovative Fertilizers – For improving harvest, human health and environment.