A chain of reactions is threatening the world’s food supply. Today, the price of the most widely used fertilizer (nitrogen fertilizer) is surging, with potentially devastating effects on global crop yields. It has been estimated that over 40% of the world’s population depends on nitrogen fertilizer usage for food production. Facing these circumstances, the two largest exporters, China and Russia, stopped their exports to protect their food security, contributing to the growing concerns of other countries. In Switzerland, the Federal Office for National Economic Supply (FONES) released one-fifth of its emergency reserves on the market in December 2021 to avoid any supply shortages. The current war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia are worsening the situation, highlighting the vulnerability of this market and the need to find solutions.
The current production and use of nitrogen fertilizer are harmful to the environment, affecting air, soil, and water quality. Thus, this document explores the opportunity that arises from this challenge, namely to build-back-better: how to preserve food security while reducing the adverse effect of food production on the environment?
Shifting towards more sustainable practices while maintaining a viable level of food supply can be attained through several channels. Increasing nitrogen use efficiency (reducing loss and improving uptake), reducing food waste, and adapting our diets are the most promising and synergistic approaches. A large-scale study showed that improvement in nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) led to an average yield increase of 11.2%, a 15.6% decrease in nitrogen fertilizer, and a decrease of 7.7% in CO2 emissions. Achieving this agricultural transition will require a paradigm change, ambitious policies, and extensive public investments.
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