By Anna Maikova
DES MOINES, Iowa — Although organic farmers often oppose using fertilizers, the majority of farmers depend on them, according to experts at the “Soil Health and Fertilizer Gap” session Thursday at the World Food Prize conference.
Pedro Sanchez, the 2002 World Food Prize winner and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, called fertilizers the “food and remedy of plants.” But he also warned that their overuse might be as hazardous for soil as alcohol poisoning for a human.
According to the United Nations, in 2050 a hectare of soil (about 2.5 acres) must feed 25 people. To accomplish this, the agriculture industry needs a wide range of tools to intensify yield.
Major fertilizer producers, such as Mosaic Co., employ precision agriculture and GPS to use fertilizers and maximize yields.
Farmers all over the world want to make soil protected and productive. Scientists say plants need 17 basic nutrients. If they are combined in the right way, plants are able to better fight diseases and produce more yields.
“Among those nutrients, phosphorus plays a great role,” said the founder of the Virtual Fertilizer Research Center, Amit Roy, who has worked with a group of international scientists for three years on a study called “Sustainable Phosphorus Management,” published this year.
Access to fertilizers is a problem for farmers in Africa, Roy said. Poor infrastructure makes delivery of fertilizers expensive. For example, the cost of delivery is 60 percent higher in Tanzania than in Thailand. There is a need to build small fertilizer plants and strategically locate them closer to African farms.
Fertilizers affect the levels of nutrients in food. The United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition estimated the cost of malnutrition as $3.5 trillion dollars, which comprises 5 percent of global GDP.
Lack of micronutrients causes chronic diseases. The diet of two billion people is zinc deficient, said Esin Mete, president of the International Fertilizer Industry Association. She explained how producing zinc-enhanced fertilizers pioneered micronutrient fertilization in Turkey, her home country.
Other cases of success include, using selenium fertilizer in Finland to address heart disease. Brazil, India, China and Bangladesh use fertilizer to tackle iodine deficiency that also affects health of almost two billion people.
China annually spends $5 million on soil health tests, according to Xinping Chen, the director of the Center of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at China Agriculture University.
Knowledge about fertilizers is lacking in Africa, said Ruth Oniango of the Sasakawa Africa Association.
“Many African people do not understand why they need to use fertilizers,” Oniango said. “Africa needs more young specialists and soil scientists.”