Trends toward sustainable crop production with speciality fertilizers

Prior to the 20th century, the use of fertilizers was limited primarily to manure and compost. While this helped recycle nutrients to the soil, their effect was limited, and fields were let to go fallow for periods of time to fully recover from the nutrient demands of growing crops. Consequently, crop production was limited.

In the 1950s, capacity for crop production escalated with advancements in machinery, selection of crop breeds and use of modern fertilizers. Together, all these changes contributed to what has been termed the Green Revolution. 

This movement saved a billion lives by preventing starvation and malnutrition. Arguably, the resulting abundance of food also allowed the global population to focus on other pursuits, which then supported advancements in other industries and overall global wealth.

Advancements in crop production continue today as technologies are focused on optimisation and sustainable agriculture. Current trends primarily related to fertilizers are addressed here.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

      1. Fertilizers' role in the Green Revolution

      Justin von Liebig’s “Law of Minimum,” often represented in the figure below, states that the potential of a crop will be limited by the most limiting nutrient.

      For example, if a crop requires 10 parts of Sulfur and only 7 are available, that crop can’t grow to its potential regardless if other nutrients are in ample supply. 

      During the Green Revolution, the availability of primary fertilizers and secondary fertilizers increased significantly, increasing crop production as a result. Because the application of these macronutrients had such a positive effect on yields, they were often used in excess of what the crops could uptake. These nutrients were no longer limiting. 

      Instead, micronutrients and other factors became limiting, and the excess macronutrients were wasted and caused unintended environmental and health impacts. Some of these impacts include eutrophication of waterways, contamination of drinking water, depletion of carbon in soils and depletion of secondary nutrients.

      2. A better, more sustainable way

      As our knowledge of agronomy and crop production continue to increase, world food demand is met more sustainably and efficiently.      

      Coming back to the “Law of the Minimum”, not only do we better understand the overall nutrient needs of our plants, we better understand when these nutrients are needed and other non-nutrient needs. Non-nutrient needs include things like organic matter, sunlight, soil structure and others, as represented in the figure below.  

      Modern advancements in crop production work together to optimise the balance of these needs to optimise crop production, while lowering the impact on our environment and on production costs.   

      3. Optimising nutrient use efficiency

      To meet the challenge of optimising nutrient use efficiency, there have been many advancements in agriculture throughout the years. The overarching theme of these advancements is to provide the inputs to the plant with the right nutrient at the right rate at the right time and at the right place (4R’s). 

      Examples of such advances are quite broad in scope and include:

      • Big Data – Data collection systems are now quite advanced. Continual data collection and analyses help identify deficiencies early so that the right inputs can be provided at the right time.  

      • Internet of Things (IoT) – While often linked to big data, this would also include internet platforms and apps that are used to monitor crop health and provide recommendations to mediate deficiencies.

      • Equipment Development – New equipment allow inputs to be controlled more precisely and efficiently. With integrated GPS capabilities, crops are provided what they need to optimise growth. This can vary within a field and even within an area of that field.

      • Speciality Fertilizers – these can be grouped into sub-categories
        • Micronutrients – While Micronutrients have been used for some time, they are still often considered to be a speciality. While macronutrients are used in large quantities, only small quantities of micronutrients are required and often only intermittently to meet a limited nutrient deficiency.  Micronutrients are often complexed and chelated to improve the availability to the plant.
        • Foliar Formulations – Often associated with micronutrients, these are fertilizer solutions that are applied to the plant  leaves and stems. This provides more direct delivery of the micronutrient but also requires special formulations to prevent the potential for leaf burn.
        • All-in-One – The practice of combining primary and secondary macronutrients is also advancing. This lowers the number of passes on a field to deliver needed inputs.
        • Crop Protection and Fertilizer blends – While related to All-in-One, there is a demand for blends of pesticides and fertilizers. While offering some of the same advantages as an All-in-One fertilizer application, blends like these are often more challenging to succeed.
        • Liquid Fertilizer – Delivering fertilizers in liquid form and through irrigation lines is much easier to dose and control accurately. However, they need to be specially formulated to prevent crystallisation and scaling that will clog lines or nozzles.
        • Slow Release - Controlling the availability of the fertilizer feeds the nutrient over a longer period of time and allows the plant to update the nutrient as it needs it. Coatings on granular fertilizers continue to improve. Different mineral types are often utilised that naturally take longer to solubilise.
        • Nitrogen  – Stabilisers and inhibitors – Nitrogen will naturally move through the soil profile and release into the atmosphere as nitrogen changes into a plant-available form.  Several products are now available to keep nitrogen available where and when it is needed.

      • Biostimulants – Plant biostimulants improve natural plant nutritional processes, resulting in improved plant health, tolerance to abiotic and other environmental stresses and improved overall growth, quality and yield.

      • Granular and pelletised fertilizers, lime and gypsum – Though not a particularly recent advancement, it is still worth mentioning as it is a way to deliver inputs more efficiently. It is much easier and more controllable to deliver granules versus powder and of benefit due to reduced wind attrition. Granular forms also allow for inputs to be intermixed to create an all-in-one fertilizer.

      • Seed treatments – The idea of treating seeds is not new, but the types of materials incorporated into the coatings are being expanded to include biological crop protection products, biostimulants and soil amendments.

      • Seed encrusting – Encrusting seeds to build mass not only makes planting small seeds easier. It also facilitates the addition of fertilizers, soil amendments and other beneficial materials.

      • Soil amendments – Healthy soils are critical for plant growth. Carbon and organic matter content, ion exchange capacity, microorganism health, soil salinity and water holding capacity all affect soil health and plant growth. Organic acids like humic and fulvic acids are now commonly added with fertilizers to ensure efficient nutrient uptake.

      While each advancement listed above will help improve nutrient use efficiency, it is often the combination of several of these newer technologies that will collectively lower the environmental impacts of agriculture while increasing yields to feed our growing population. 

      4. Borregaard's contribution to sustainable agriculture

      Borregaard is proud to provide products and ingredients that contribute to sustainable agriculture. Our products are sustainable alternatives to traditional products and improve nutrient use efficiency to reduce the impacts on our environment. They can be used in combination with many of the advancements mentioned above.

      Borregaard produces and supplies formulators and retailers with unique fulvic and humic acids. Our products not only support yield increase and improve nutrient uptake on their own, but they also offer superior compatibility with a variety of fertilizers (including 10-34-0), biologicals and other ingredients to allow for unique, all-in-one products. 

      Complexed micronutrients and bio-based complexing agents are also produced by Borregaard. These products offer unique complexing properties across a wide pH range, possess hygroscopic properties and are tensioactive. They are also a source of soluble carbon and provide sulfur. Often, these products are used in foliar applications when leaf burn is an issue.   

      Many producers of granulated fertilizer and limestone utilise Borregaard’s binders for their high and consistent quality and cost-effectiveness. While effective binders, once the granules are applied, the binders will dissolve with rain events releasing fertilizer to the soil. The binder itself contains soluble carbon and may help to complex the fertilizer into a plant-available form

      Borregaard offers products to improve soil salinity and pH. By reducing or eliminating soil salinity, water infiltration is improved, creating a better growing environment for the plant.

      Several products offered by Borregaard are approved for organic use and retain OMRI certifications. The impact on the environment is significantly reduced when using organic methods. We are excited to be participating in this growing area. 

      Finally, these products are effective agronomically and have been proven through field trials to demonstrate increased yields in a variety of crops, including broadacre crops like corn, rice, wheat, soybean, cotton and fruit crops: 

      • Rutaceae – orange, lemon, grapefruit, tangerine
      • Rosaceae – apple/pome fruits, plum/stone fruits, raspberries, strawberry, almonds
      • Ericaceae – blueberries, cranberries
      • Vitis – wine grape, table grape
      • Other Fruit and Nut Crops, Vegetable Crops, Horticulture Crops, and Turf and Ornamentals

      By improving nutrient use efficiency, input costs are optimized, and the impact on our environment is reduced.

      5. Conclusion

      While the Green Revolution was a huge step toward feeding our population, the demand for food continues to increase as our global population grows. Arable land is expected to decrease due to climate change and population expansion. The pressure on existing arable land will increase and will lead to increased nutrient deficiency.

      Advancements in agriculture contribute to help meet this challenge while mitigating the potential impacts agriculture has on our environment. Borregaard is proud to do its part by providing products and ingredients to retailers and formulators that increase yields, improve sustainability and reduce the impact on our environment.