The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Fertilizer: A Necessary Input

Fertilizer: A Necessary Input

The Food Journal

January 6, 2014

What is the problem with fertilizer?

It’s all about perspective and point of view. Nutrient runoff from fields contributes to degraded water quality, places a burden on the environment, wastes resources, costs farmers money and increases carbon emissions. Overzealous regulation or pressure to reduce the use of inputs is just as damaging. Not optimizing input use means lower yields, less food and sales for farmers, commits us to producing less when we need more and means marginal lands may be brought into production. The problem with fertilizer is not fertilizer itself but the tradeoffs that can fail to be considered. Fertilizer optimization is key.

Fertilizers: Organic or not?

In order for plants to grow, they need carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. These come from nature. Fertilizer supplies the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. People don’t realize that organic fertilizers (manures, compost, or bone meal) “usually contain many plant nutrients, albeit in low concentrations, and these nutrients have to be converted into inorganic forms by soil bacteria and fungi before plants can use them.” (Chicago Botanic Garden). Organic and inorganic fertilizers more than often need to be combined for improvement of plant yield. This is called integrated plant nutrition. “The use of some inorganic sources of plant nutrients in organic farming systems is recognized by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and Codex Alimentarius (a joint FAO/WHO intergovernmental body in charge of setting minimum international standards and guidelines that apply to food products).” (The International Fertilizer Industry Association)


Measuring fertilizer use through data management and technology is a fantastic advancement. “Our hope is that collection, analysis, and interpretation of data in ways that help farmers improve management becomes more and more accessible to increasing numbers of farmers,” says Suzy Friedman, Director, Agricultural Sustainability, the Environmental Defense Fund. “We hope it becomes the norm. Better data means better farming in both the aspect of optimizing fertilizer but also in generating more revenue.” Suzy Friedman speaks more about annual farmers’ meetings discussing data and the Adapt Network, an initiative with a basic data correction process for farmers in her full interview. Interview with Suzy Friedman: Director, Agricultural Sustainability, EDF “With your food buying dollars, support retailers, farmers and food companies working to optimize fertilizer use,” reiterates Friedman.

A Farmer’s Biggest Challenges:

One challenge is the misconception by the general public of farmer fertilizer use. As a fourth-generation farmer, Don Glenn, National Corn Growers Association's Production and Stewardship Action Team Chair, has no incentive to over-apply fertilizer. “The amount of corn grown on an acre of ground since the 1950s has gone up 400%. I can grow 200 bushels to my grandfather’s fifty. I’m not using much more fertilizer than he did at that time. It’s an expensive crop input and as a businessman, I am trying to reduce my costs,” explains Don. “There is a big misconception that farmers are just throwing fertilizer out in the fields when nothing could be further from the truth.” Technology is in fact moving forward in farming. With data management, computers are used to scan the fields and map what the yields were in each area of the land. Read more about Don’s use of technology in the field to map yields for fertilizer reduction in his full interview. Interview with Don Glenn, National Corn Growers Association's Production and Stewardship Action Team Chair 

The second challenge is blanket regulation of fertilizer practices. The regulations or best practices in fertilizer use may be applicable for one location but may not be the same in another location. Needs actually vary from one part of a field to another. The duration of growing seasons vary as do climates. Oversight that does not take these differences in the land in consideration is a daunting issue for not only our food supply, but the profitability of the farm sector. “If the farmers stop making money, people are going to not have food,” warns Don.  

Other challenges include the need for investment in fertilizer management options, and advocacy groups sending the wrong message about farmers and fertilizer to consumers and voters. 

The Sellers and Buyers of the End Product:

Walmart’s Sustainability Hub posts the article How to Make a Difference – Fertilizer Optimization reiterating “Fertilizer Optimization is a top sustainability priority for our food business.” A part of Field to Market, Walmart sees how “this space requires collaboration across categories and at every stage of the supply chain. No buyer, supplier or category can address this challenge alone.” One of the examples they share in their tool kit is efforts by Kellogg to work with Field to Market and Adapt Network through crop mapping of their growers. The research also promises an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases. 

Under their Sustainable Agriculture Code, 2.3 Nutrient Management, Unilever has the mandatory requirement of suppliers to provide necessary data to calculate a Sustainable Agriculture Metric called “Nitrogen balance,” all the while acknowledging that fertilizers and/or composts are important inputs to most farming systems.