Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

How the Proper Use of Fertilizer Can Help Global Progress Toward Zero Hunger


This article series is underwritten by The Mosaic Company and went through our normal editorial review process. 

By now most of us have heard the oft-quoted refrain that the world is going to have to find a way to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 while still limiting the effects of agriculture on climate change. This will be no small undertaking.

Population growth exponentially increases climate change by creating a greater burden on natural resources. Climate change negatively affects agriculture, as weather disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods greatly reduce crop yields, contaminate water supplies, and destroy the infrastructure of agricultural operations. Agriculture can also increase the negative effects of climate change as farming increases greenhouse gas (GHG) production. And this vicious cycle negatively affects food security.

Increasing land use for food production can provide part of the answer, but removing trees and destroying ecosystems is the antithesis of minimizing climate change.  A better solution may be found in intensifying the production of food—and the nutritional value of that food—where it is already being grown.

One way to achieve this necessary increase is to boost the health of the soil in the growing area, and one way to boost the health of the soil is with fertilizer.

Plants need three main nutrients to grow: Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) -- or NPK -- as well as a range of micronutrients. When soil is farmed, these nutrients diminish substantially; introducing fertilizer adds them back for optimal growing conditions.

In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the U.N. published its 16th FAO Fertilizer and Plant Nutrition Bulletin. Titled “Plant nutrition for food security: A guide for integrated nutrient management,” the report details how nutrient-abundant fertilizers are vital to the ability to increase agricultural yields, while being mindful of the potential ecological implications of excess fertilizer runoff entering natural waterways.

Since then, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) has developed the 4R Nutrient Stewardship. This is a “framework to achieve cropping system goals, such as increased production, increased farmer profitability, enhanced environmental protection, and improved sustainability.” The basis consists of using the “right fertilizer source” -- matching the fertilizer type to what a particular crop needs; at the “right rate” -- only using the exact amount of fertilizer necessary; at the “right time” -- only adding fertilizer when needed; and in the “right place” -- keeping the nutrients where the crops can use them.

In 2012, TFI launched the 4R Advocate program which recognizes agricultural retailers and producers who are leading the way on the implementation of, and educating of other agricultural stakeholders on, 4R nutrient stewardship.

On a larger scale, TFI recognizes 4R Partners, which consists of companies and NGOs who:

  • Embrace the 4R framework within their organization and messaging as a recognizable strategy for economic, social, and environmental sustainability;

  • Create awareness and provide outreach for the initiative within their organization, to their stakeholders, to policy developers and to the public;

  • As applicable, implement services or practices consistent with the 4R scientific principles.

Among those included are Ducks Unlimited, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), The Nature Conservancy, John Deere & Co., and The Mosaic Company.

Though the 4R framework is currently practiced only in North America, many of its principles are being introduced in India and have resulted in crop yield increases and Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) achieving prominence. In many areas, fertilizer has not only safely increased food production, but it has also given smallholder farmers more ways to earn a living and take care of feeding their own families.

Through the next articles in this series, readers will learn more about the positive impacts of appropriate fertilizer use in India, and how companies like Mosaic are decreasing environmental footprints while working toward zero hunger via community development.

Image via Unsplash/Thomas Gamstaetter