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Fertilizer Restrictions’ Unintended Consequences

Food Regulations and Policy, Soil and Crop Management

Fertilizer Restrictions’ Unintended Consequences

The Dirt

Governments around the world are toying with prohibitions against the use of some fertilizers to reach their goals for greenhouse gas emission reduction. Proponents say organic production can feed the world. It sounds like a reasonable idea, especially when linked to the growing interest in enriching the soil through regenerative agricultural practices. But those are very different farming practices. But as with most ideas offering a quick and easy solution to a perceived problem, the idea may have unintended consequences that work against boosting agricultural productivity and protecting our ecosystem for future generations. 


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Want to fight climate change right now? Need to meet short-term targets for reductions in greenhouse gases? Then restrict applications of certain fertilizers. That should work…right?

Maybe. Maybe not. The jury is still out. Why? Because of the gap between theory and practice… the ideal and the reality… the noble aspiration and the unintended consequences. It could be that we are pushing ideas too soon and too fast. For instance, if we were to eliminate or drastically reduce fossil fuels before wind and solar are ready for prime time, we would be riding our bicycles to the grocery store to buy only locally-produced food, a particularly hard feat in the dead of winter.

Matching idealism with practical reality

Idealism is a powerful driver of a better world. But it works best only if married to worldly reality. The solutions we all seek for our ag system’s sustainability and responsible role in managing climate issues will take time and cooperation, not a rush to ill-considered magic-bullet thinking and win-lose confrontation.

We’re seeing evidence of that all around us. The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter, with annual sales of roughly $100 billion. But government officials are implementing controversial plans to mandate changes to farming practices to meet targeted reductions in nitrogen emissions and buy-out programs for lands that can’t meet specified targets.  Producers have been outspoken in their concerns about the implications of such controls on the future of the farming sector.

Better still, ask farmers in Sri Lanka about the 2021 flash-cut to organic farming. Without available practical options to replace commercial fertilizers, farmers faced draconian reductions in farm output – and farm income. Reduced production threatened food shortages and dramatic price increases.

The resulting unrest saw an estimated 300,000 protestors take to the streets, prompting violence and forcing a government literally to flee for its life.

A proposed reduction in some fertilizer use by the Canadian government brought a flurry of opposition from farming and trade interests across the middle of the country, where wheat and other crop production is the economic lifeblood of more than one province.

But an interesting fact is that the countries using the most fertilizer are not yet in the political crosshairs.

The driving idea is to embrace new ag production techniques that overcome the problems identified with traditional commercial fertilization. Too much fertilizer, haphazardly applied, more frequently and copiously than needed, can actually harm the soil, deplete it of essential nutritive properties, lead to the release of too much carbon from the soil into the air, and harm the watersheds. Everybody seems to know that – including the farm community, and the fertilizer and input industry that serves them.

Superficially, it sounds oh-so-reasonable. After all, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ag is supposed to account for about 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s substantially less than other sources, such as transportation (27%), electricity (25%), and industry (24%). The fertilizer industry alone is about 1.5%, mainly through using natural gas.

Finding the best balance point

Proper delivery of commercial fertilizers, such as precision farming, helps reduce these risks. It finds the optimal balance point between the use of costly inputs and the crop productivity that makes the difference between profit and loss for producers. The practical reality of farming is the existential need to operate profitably.

Many farmers already embrace sensible regulatory guidelines on fertilizer applications, such as those in Minnesota that spell out when and under what conditions nitrogen may be applied in fields. More broadly, producers are embracing soil-replenishing regenerative agricultural practices. It includes things such as expensive high-precision application equipment, sophisticated analysis of soil nutrient needs, and use of crops and cropping patterns that feed organic biomass back onto the soil to enrich it and make it healthier, among other practices. It means more minimum-till and no-till, and greater use of cover crops.

The roster of innovations and practical, real-world experimentation and data-based decisions expands every day – and not in a committee room or a lecture hall, but in the actual fields where the desire to do good and noble and rewarding things meets cold hard reality.

Also in reality, the key consideration is balance. Farmers aren’t indifferent to environmental issues. It’s more than a do-gooder syndrome. It’s recognition of their status as stewards of the land – people at the front lines of protecting and preserving the natural resources base that makes their lives and livelihoods possible. They want to do the right thing and are working like hell to find the optimal balance point in how to maximize productivity and protect the soil, water, and air that keep us all alive.

It’s simple: the world needs fertilizers to have a prayer of meeting the food needs of a growing world. It needs those fertilizers most in the parts of the world that can least afford them, and places where the alternatives to commercial fertilizers are most lacking.

The desired level of efficiency and productivity remains elusive in many parts of our world. It’s especially challenging in areas without the extensive investment needed to improve the availability of equipment and infrastructure essential to creating more biomass, or advancing education and support critical to higher productivity.

Is regenerative ag the same as organic farming?

Much of the support for mandated reductions in fertilizer applications is based on faith in alternative methods of delivering important plant nutrients. Proponents sometimes simplistically refer to this as greater reliance on ‘organic’ farming. After all, organic farming is predicated on avoiding the use of harmful chemicals.

Casual use of the term “organic’ may be a convenient shorthand for the idea of an environmentally friendly approach to food production. But is technically incorrect in this instance. ‘Organic’ farming is simply compliance with regulatory guidelines on the avoidance of a select group of chemicals in farming. It has nothing to do with the ecological effects of such practices.

In short, ‘organic’ farming is focused on how our food is produced, not the consequences of those practices on our environment – and most importantly, our soil. For instance, the yield per acre for organic corn, soybeans, and wheat is at least 40% less than its conventionally-grown counterpart. Which means, more land under plow to feed the world today. And all organic fertilizers are not manure-based. Organic farming is based on natural nutrients but many of them can be made synthetically.

The more recent thinking about innovative approaches to better fertilization practices is to focus on “regenerative” practices – the complex mix of crops, crop rotations, tillage practices, water use and other conservation practices that rehabilitate and renew topsoil. It focuses on making the soil work harder to provide its own necessary nutrients.

Regenerative agriculture encompasses a more holistic approach to the ultimate goal behind the fertilizer debate – which is building a sustainable food production system capable of meeting the rising demand for food – and especially plant proteins.

The world recognizes the need to take a new, bigger view of how fertilizers fit into the need for a kind of new Green Revolution. We’re moving to understand how to use fertilizers more wisely, and how to deliver critical soil nutrients more effectively and more sustainably. But the solution isn’t an either-or choice. It’s an “and” answer.

Commercial fertilizers, organic farming and the regenerative soil movement are partners in getting the absolute best from our existing natural resources, while actually enriching them in the process. They are partners not just in better management of carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions and best management of climate change. They are partners in feeding the world today and for future generations.

Even with aggressive implementation of soil-enriching practices and superior crop management practices, the responsible use of commercial fertilizers as a component of overall plant-nutrient management still promises to be the difference between failure and survival for many, many growers.

The Bottom Line

As pure and noble the environmental goals behind such thinking may be, the risk of unintended but wholly predictable consequences is arguably an equal (or perhaps even greater) concern. In a perfect but as yet non-existent world, soil-replenishing techniques and new farming practices might be able to sharply reduce the use of traditional fertilizers. But we’re not there yet. Perhaps a better focus would be to seek greater opportunities for collaboration and cooperation across the commercial fertilizer industry, the organic community, and the regenerative movement.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line