Is fertiliser the key to more food and better health?

by Esin Mete, International Fertilizer Industry Association
Monday, 13 October 2014 15:00 GMT

Zimbabwean women harvest maize from a field in a peri-urban suburb of Mabvuku in Harare, Zimbabwe, on April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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Africa could get higher crop yields and better nutrition if improves its soil

2014 has already been an historic year for food security with the African Union’s “Year of Agriculture and Food Security” and Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit labelling agriculture and sustainable food production a priority action area.

And with the United Nations having announced 2015 as the “International Year of Soils”, our attention should turn to one of agriculture’s most important assets – the land itself.

Sustainably intensifying food production to feed nine billion people by 2050 requires fertile and healthy soils.  The African continent suffers the most from a wide agricultural yield gap with cereal crop yields only one-tenth as high as those in the United States.


One of the key reasons for this immense productivity gap is the lack of access to inputs in Africa, in particular fertilisers. Although sub-Saharan Africa represents 10 percent of the total global population (and in 2050 it will represent 25 percent), it only accounts for 0.8 percent of total fertiliser use.  

75 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s soils are degraded and lack the nutrients required for crop production. It is estimated that nutrient losses from agricultural soils in sub-Saharan Africa are worth the equivalent of $4 billion annually.

This is where fertilisers can play a role: replenishing the vital nutrients that get extracted from the soil with each harvest, and also helping farmers get higher yields from less land. In fact, it is estimated that fertiliser use contributes to more than 50 percent of today’s food production.

We must address this looming gap in such a way that African farmers have greater access to fertilisers and better knowledge of how to use them prudently and effectively.

The International Fertilizer Industry Association, together with seven partners, has been highlighting throughout the year the many challenges which need to be addressed for this to be achieved. For example, improving transport infrastructure can have a profound impact. Rwanda has subsidised transport costs for fertiliser since 2008, which has contributed to its maize yield increasing by 73 percent.

Improving fertiliser use through education is also an essential element. Aside from providing nutrients essential for plant health, the fertiliser industry educates retailers and farmers on agronomic practices that can improve soil health.

Nutrient stewardship programs based on the “4R” principle (the right nutrient source, at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place), are needed around the world to support farmers in raising their yields, while reducing their environmental footprint.


But healthy, micronutrient-rich soils are about much more than simply food production; they also increase the bioavailability of minerals (such as zinc) that are essential to humans’ wellbeing.

More than one-tenth of the world’s total disease burden can be traced back to micronutrient deficiencies, and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that malnutrition alone costs the global economy around $3.5 trillion dollars each year (around 5 percent of global GDP).

Supplementing fertilisers with the minerals that contain these micronutrients has shown much promise in raising the nutrition levels of the people that ultimately consume these crops.

For instance, the introduction of zinc-enhanced fertilisers in Turkey not only increased yields by as much as a 500 percent but also virtually eliminated zinc-related illnesses from the local population and is estimated to have boosted the economy by approximately $150 million.

While there is no single solution to food and nutrition security, the importance of soil health cannot be disputed. If we expect our soils to feed the world, we need to feed, maintain and restore them.  And we must work together to do so.

Esin Mete is the president of the International Fertilizer Industry Association and will be speaking this week at the World Food Prize on a panel entitled “Soil Health and the Fertilizer Gap”.