Nutrient Use Efficiency Important to Energizing the World


March 22, 2013

This week, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) released an issue paper titled, “Food, Fuel, and Plant Nutrient Use in the Future.” Two authors of the paper, David Zilberman, chair of the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Bruce Dale of the department of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University in East Lansing, presented key points of the paper in Washington, D.C.

This paper analyzes projected population dynamics in the coming decades and what it will take to sustain a growing global population. In order to produce enough food to feed and fuel the growing populations in developing countries, changes will have to occur in the ways we produce energy, what we grow on our lands and how efficiently we use nutrients to maintain healthy soil.

The CAST report states that continued investment in technology will allow the United States to maintain its leading role in global food production. Further, the authors believe that this growth in agriculture will require increases in the amount of nutrients consumed in food, fiber and fuel production. Pointing to work done by the International Plant Nutrition Institute, the paper further reports that for more than 20 years, the amount of phosphate and potash used by crops have outstripped these nutrients’ removal from the soils, thus indicating the critical need to ensure that future fertilizer application rates meet the nutritional requirements of crops.

During their presentation, Dale and Zilberman claimed that it is important for people to have access to reliable energy sources. Higher gross domestic product (GDP) is correlated with higher energy use. With access to energy, people have a better quality of life. However, Dale and Zilberman claimed that peak oil has arrived. The growing population needs alternatives to fossil fuels, particularly energy sources that are reliable and sustainable.

“Non-food plant matter is the only source I know that can do this,” said Dale.

Cellulosic biofuels present an enormous opportunity for the agriculture industry, Dale said.  He explains that most agricultural land is used to grow feed for livestock, not food for people. Double cropping, or planting annual grasses or legumes during the winter after the corn or soybean crop is harvested, can be used for producing animal feed and improving the soil. However, double cropping is only done on 10 percent of farm land because it is not a source of revenue for the grower. However, if it became a revenue source, such as using the leftover leaf protein concentrate (which could replace soil meal protein for feed) or growing cellulosic biofuels, land could be used to grow feed for livestock and feed stocks for biofuel production all in the same year. Double cropping also provides environmental benefits, such as increasing soil fertility (by sequestering carbon), eliminating wind and water erosion, and decreasing the leaching of nitrates and other pollutants.

The issue paper further calls for producers to continue to use best management practices to manage their nutrients because healthy soil is essential to growing feed as well as cellulosic biofuels. In the Fertilizer Institute’s (TFI) opinion, the 4R nutrient stewardship framework (using the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place) is a perfect fit for the needs highlighted in this paper. The BMPs recommended in 4Rs are already providing social, economic and environmental benefits for producers, but can also help agriculture provide food, fiber and fuel for a growing global population.  

The issue paper is available free of charge and can be downloaded by clicking here.