Three experts provide new insights on how fertilizers affect agriculture, nutrition, and health

Fertilizers can sustainably enhance agriculture for improving nutrition and health, said the participants of the second seminar in the lead-in series for the 2020 conference. Luc Maene of the International Fertilizer Association (IFA), Tom Bruulsema of the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), and Ross Welch from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) explored both the potential opportunities and major challenges for using fertilizers and other technologies to positively affect  agriculture, health, and nutrition.

Welch identifies fertilizer and other technologies as an effective solution to malnutrition, which in his opinion, is caused by a “dysfunctional agriculture system” that is not concerned with human health. While supplements and fortification play one role in health needs, he says that fertilizers can make seeds and grains more productive, improve the quality of nutrient uptake, and increase nutrient absorption.

To carry out these sustainable solutions, public figures need to declare a goal of promoting better health through agriculture and then design systems that support that primary goal. Welch emphasizes that successfully connecting these sectors requires “all the tools in the toolbox,” including genetically modified crops and fertilizer technologies.

While agriculture poses incredible opportunities for solving food security issues and improving people’s health and nutrition, it also is a “moving target,” according to Maene. Agriculture is constrained by land and water shortages, complex demands of the food cycle, and climate change.

Despite the wealth of knowledge and technologies available, agriculture industry often fails in the “last-mile delivery” and does not provide farmers, particularly in developing countries, with the tools to maximize benefits and reduce risks, says Maene. Instead, industry leaders need to be accountable for their products “beyond the factory gate.”

This focus on sustainability is part of a new trend in the fertilizer industry, which previously conceptualized itself as a commodities industry and thus responsibility-free. While Maene says that it has been a challenging mindset to convert, there is a growing recognition of accountability and of the industry’s new role in sustainability.

Bruulsema described an ongoing joint project between IPNI and IFA that discusses the functional quality of fruits, vegetables, and cereals, food safety issues, health risks and plant diseases, and organic versus conventional food systems.  Bruulsema noted that to achieve sustainability in agriculture, we need to explore knowledge gaps, find solutions to enhance benefits, and push for full cooperation in the private sector.

Reported by Zhenya Karelina.