Fertilizer is a key ingredient in feeding a growing global population, which is expected to surpass 9.5 billion people by 2050. Half of all food grown around the world today, for both people and animals, is made possible through the use of fertilizer. As demand continues to grow, farmers around the world will continue to rely on fertilizer to increase production efficiency to produce more food while optimizing inputs.
Fertilizers play an essential role in replenishing nutrients in the soil that are used by plants each growing season. Three primary nutrients are necessary for plant growth: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. All must be present in soil in the right amount to grow healthy crops.
Nitrogen is essential in the formation of protein, which makes up much of the tissue present in living things.
The earth’s atmosphere is about 78 percent nitrogen by volume; however, most plants can’t get their nitrogen directly from the air and require nitrogen fertilizer.
Nitrogen fertilizer is made by capturing nitrogen from the air and combining it with hydrogen derived from natural gas. This production method is called the Haber-Bosch process.
Phosphorus is involved in many processes critical to plant development. Key among them is photosynthesis, the process that plants use when converting sunlight to energy.
The phosphorus in most commercial fertilizers comes from phosphate rock found in fossil remains originally laid down beneath ancient sea beds. Fertilizer manufacturers mine deposits of phosphate rock, which are converted into phosphate fertilizers.
Potassium, also known as potash, is essential for carbohydrate and starch synthesis, and it also helps plants resist wilting.
Up to 98 percent of potassium in the soil is unavailable to plants in its existing form, making potash fertilizer essential for crop production. Potassium, like nitrogen, also helps plants produce protein as they grow. Potassium, like phosphate, is mined from mineral deposits.
WHO IS INVOLVED?
The fertilizer industry is made up of companies who represent the entire supply chain from production to distribution to retail, all working together to deliver fertilizer to farmers in a safe, timely, and sustainable manner.
The safety of employees and the communities located near fertilizer production and retail facilities is a top concern for the industry. ResponsibleAg serves the industry as a resource for retail agribusinesses working to comply with federal environment, health, safety, and security regulations.
POLICY & SUSTAINABILITY CHALLENGES AHEAD
The production of fertilizer is energy intensive. Natural gas is used in the production of nitrogen and in manufacturing dry phosphate fertilizers. Natural gas can account for between 70 and 90 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing cost. Government policies that encourage fuel switching to natural gas from other sources may affect demand by creating energy supply or pricing issues. This can impact the U.S. fertilizer industry’s competitiveness in the global market.
Because fertilizer is produced near natural resource deposits and not near most farms, a reliable transportation network is vital to moving fertilizer around the nation. A ton of fertilizer might travel by ocean-going ships, railroads, trucks, and river barges before reaching the farmer. Disruptions in service, especially rail, can negatively impact a farmer’s ability to apply the right fertilizer at the right time.
Just as important to the sustainable production of fertilizer is the sustainable use of nutrients on the farm. 4R Nutrient Stewardship (use of the right fertilizer source at the right rate, the right time, and in the right place) is a framework for sustainable nutrient management. Helping farmers maximize crop yields while protecting air and water resources is an ongoing challenge. Use of more nutrients than plants need, and conversely, the use of too few nutrients, can have negative impacts on the environment and farm profitability. The industry is committed to these principles and takes an active role with our customers and stakeholders to improve 4R adoption. These efforts are helping address regional hotspots where excess nutrients are contributing to impaired water quality.
2016 Fertilizer State of the Industry Report PDF