April 4, 2022 | News

Recent E4S research on nitrogen fertilizer shows that we can shift towards more sustainable practices while maintaining a viable level of food supply. A crucial topic as fertilizer prices have soared.

Are we about to go through a global food crisis? That is the question that everybody is asking at the moment. While no one has a clear answer for sure, some signs are showing a dire situation could be upon us. The good news? We can do something about it, before it’s too late. This is what E4S has outlined in a recent report: “Threats to Nitrogen Fertilizer, Opportunities to Cultivate Sustainable Practices?”. 

First, it is important to understand what allowed us to sustain food security for our growing population. The simple answer is: nitrogen fertilizers. Since their discovery in the early 20th century, they have been an absolutely crucial component of modern agriculture to increase crop yields. It is estimated that 40% of the world’s population depends on nitrogen fertilizers today.

The issue is that fertilizer prices have skyrocketed since last year. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the situation much worse. Two figures summarize why this is a serious issue:

– Russia was until recently the 2nd largest foreign exporter of fertilizer, providing 10% of the total supply.

– Russia and Belarus accounted for more than 40% of global exports of potash, a key component of fertilizer.

In a nutshell, the world is very dependent on Russia for its fertilizer, which the world desperately needs to produce food.

One sign has shown that authorities take the issue very seriously: 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.

So, this leads to the second, and most important, part: what can producers and consumers do about it?

For farmers, one key aspect is to work on nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). While this could seem like a complex concept, NUE could be simply described as the ratio between the uptake of nitrogen by the plant and the amount of nitrogen put in the soil. As a matter of fact, using less nitrogen can sometimes lead to yield increase.

A large-scale study in China involving 21 million farmers over 10 years showed that improvement in nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) led to very encouraging results. Indeed, farmers saw an average yield increase of 11.2% while reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizers by 15.6%. The study also showed that farmers reduced their CO2 emissions by 7.7%.

While a lot needs to be done by the agricultural industry, consumers can also have a role to play. Indeed, some of our actions have a direct impact on our use of nitrogen fertilizers, such as our food diet.

Substituting meat-based products with plant-based ones is one of the key actions consumers can take. First, on average, vegetarian products require five times less fertilizers to produce than meat. Second, legume crops in particular (rich in protein) actually enrich the soil by providing nitrogen directly to the ground.

Vegetarian diets or diets including less meat mechanically require less fertilizer use because of the difference in fertilizer needed to produce a plant-based calorie compared to a meat-based one. More specifically, producing 1000 animal kilo-calories (kcal) requires on average 84 g of nitrogen fertilizer compared to only 16 g of nitrogen fertilizer for producing 1000 kcal of plant-based calories.

Another aspect of tackling food insecurity, as well as pollution, is reducing food waste, one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Food waste is often referred to as “the world’s dumbest problem”: we pollute the air with greenhouse gases and soil with fertilizers, to produce food, which eventually ends up in the trash, leading to even more pollution (through methan). All of which happens while approximately 690 million people globally are undernourished.

From crop to plate, it is estimated that around one-third of the global food production is lost or wasted. Within the European Union, 60 million tons of food are wasted annually, accounting for an equivalent of 16% of the food consumed in all member states. In turn, avoidable food waste makes up 47 million tons, representing 12% of the food reaching consumers annually. 

Although “nitrogen fertilizers’ prices surge” seems like a remote and complex issue, it could very well impact our daily lives very seriously. But while we are facing a major challenge, it is important to remember that solutions exist on many different levels – from consumer choices, to producers and even government interventions – to build a more sustainable and resilient agricultural system. This article shows a few of them, but there are plenty more. This is why the E4S Center has decided to focus on the topic.

Want to know more? You can read our report: “Threats to Nitrogen Fertilizer, Opportunities to Cultivate Sustainable Practices?”