THE NEXT GREEN REVOLUTION

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When issues such as feeding nine billion people find themselves as part of a 16-page report in The Economist then not before time it has arrived on major global agendas.

It emphasises that agriculture has suffered from serious under-investment over the last couple of decades but it also points the way forward through greater investment to encourage focus on practical on-farm solutions in both developed and developing countries and on increasing innovation in new technologies to support increased agricultural productivity globally at all levels from small-holders in Africa and Asia to large farming operations in Europe, North and South America.

Essentially the report was targeted towards how to increase food (and biofuel) production as efficiently as possible with the available resources to hand – a true economist’s viewpoint on this great challenge of getting ‘MORE FOR LESS’ faced by a growing planet

Below the hard facts and figures are there to see and show that future agricultural productivity must increase to meet a growing population’s demand for food because the amount of land available to achieve this will only be a little higher than in preceding decades, and the pressures on natural resources such as water will increase enormously.

hardfacts

 

 

As was the case in the first Green Revolution, N fertilizers will remain a key driver in future growth but adequate and balanced crop nutrition practices with the other 11 essential fertilizer nutrients will have a major role to play, not just to ensure maximum yields per hectare, such as P (shown) and K, but also to help improve the nutritional and dietary value of crops, particularly by using micronutrients such as Zn.

In addition to limited land availability, water supplies will become more and more restricted in future so it will be important to manage this just as carefully as crop nutrition to ensure maximum use efficiency of this critical resource.

 

 

So all the hard facts and figures reinforce the conclusion that the future challenge for agriculture is to get greater production of more nutritious food per hectare on existing farmland, using all crop management inputs, like fertilizers, and natural resources, such as water, more efficiently. In other words with the goal of getting ‘MORE FOR LESS’.

Towards the end of  Green Revolution 1.0, the increases in agriculture productivity provided sufficient food (certainly in terms of  available calories) to support the global population at the time.

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This was a truly remarkable (but frequently forgotten or conveniently ignored) achievement by farmers worldwide as it brought about a position that is nowadays referred to as ‘Food Security’ (see the FAO’s definition of this in the box) for the majority of the global population (with notable exceptions in parts of Africa where the Green Revolution failed to occur).

However during the later years of the Green Revolution, and in the early years of this century, there has been an upsurge in malnutrition, notably of micronutrients such as Zinc (Zn).

This means that though the first Green Revolution resulted in a position of Food Security it was not as successful at achieving ‘Nutrition Security’, as defined by the FAO, particularly in developing countries.

Today, with a global population growing more rapidly than ever, achieving both Food and Nutrition Security targets are becoming major challenges for farmers, and they will need all the help they can get to rise to them. Hopefully Kemnovation can play a part.

This increased incidence of malnutrition can be attributed partly to a change to diets which have become dominated by cereal grains, such as wheat and rice, compared to those based on traditional pulse and root crops before Green Revolution 1.0.

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However it is also likely that the steady annual increases in yields per hectare over the decades has caused significant ‘soil mining’ via harvested crops, and without adequate and balanced fertilizer applications to replace these ‘lost’ nutrients their availability has been reduced in soils consequently lowering levels in the crops grown in them.

To add substance to the previous observation, studies by Sillanpaa (1990) towards the end of the Green Revolution demonstrated the extent of global soils showing acute and latent (marginal) deficiencies in many crop nutrients.

 

Note that as well as the widespread deficiency of the primary nutrient N, that almost one half of all soils tested showed acute or latent deficiency of Zn which results in reduced levels of this essential micronutrient in crops grown in them.

Following a full review of Sillanpaa’s work Welch and Graham (2011) concluded that ”..it is imperative…that fertilizer technology be used to improve the nutritional quality of staple food crops that feed the world’s malnourished poor”.

 

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Further focus on the increasing problem of global micronutrient malnutrition in recent years was provided by a feature in The Economist in March 2011 entitled ”Hidden Hunger’ with the emphasis yet again on global Zn deficiency ”causing roughly 400,000 deaths a year”.

 

 

 

Therefore soils and crops deficient in Zn frequently do not provide a sufficiency of this micronutrient in the diet for good human health which will ultimately lead to widespread malnutrition.

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Bouis et al (2011) provided data on the extent of micronutrient deficiencies, not only of Zn but also of Fe, in every region of the world.

The highest incidences occur in mostly developing regions but even in the developed ones Zn and Fe deficiencies are perhaps unexpectedly common.

Research is now underway to find innovative ways to improve crop content, for example by breeding new crop varieties which can take up more, or increase the dietary availability, of Zn or Fe (HarvestPlus Programme), or by developing fertilizers which apply these essential micronutrients to soils or crops – a process called ‘agronomic bio-fortification’.

 

 

 

Application of fertilizers containing micronutrients such as Zn is becoming more widely accepted as an agronomic route to bio-fortify crops.

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Shivay et al (2010) demonstrated that applying N fertilizer (as urea) plus Zn had a ‘double-up’ benefit of not only increasing yields in tonnes per hectare (t/ha) but also improving the micronutrient content of rice and wheat grain compared with N alone.

For several reasons this is a good point to finish with because these trials elegantly show the way forward in applying fertilizers to help ensure both Food and Nutrition Security in future.

Also that despite the small additional cost of the Zn in the fertilizer programme, Shivay et al have actually achieved the goal of ‘more for less’.

 

 

In order to consolidate the scientific knowledge-base, as well as give inspiration for further research and innovation in fertilizer applications to achieve Food and Nutrition Security, IFA and the IPNI recently published “Fertilizing Crops to Improve Human Health”.
Fertilizing crops

(www.fertilizer.org)

 

As a co-editor, I feel privileged to have worked on this ground-breaking document and to bring it onward into the Kemnovation.com forum to help promote greater awareness of the formidable social, economic and environmental achievements of the international fertilizer industry over the decades.

Furthermore I hope that the Kemnovation.com forum will promote further sharing, discussion and collaboration to contribute innovative solutions to the future challenges of achieving food and nutrition security with less environmental impact for a growing planet.