Research for Resilience: soil and plant nutrition that works for farmers

Albin Hubscher, President and CEO of the International Fertilizer Development Center, speaks to Farming First about work which helps farmers maintain fertile soils for bountiful harvests. 

It is no secret that we must grow more food. And to grow more food, we must have healthy and nutritious soils.

With the global population rapidly increasing, we must double or triple our food production in the next couple of decades to avert a worldwide food crisis. And we must do so in the face of extreme weather events, continued deforestation, rapid desertification, and widespread pollution. Addressing this monumental challenge will require determined technological innovation and new research on old, “tried-and-true” solutions. While admittedly a far-cry from being “new,” fertilizers are a necessary contribution to closing farmers’ yield gap and producing more food worldwide, while being climate-smart and mitigating effects on the environment.

IFDC has long been a champion in the fertilizer or plant nutrition space, and it is easy to be complacent when age-old methods for increasing yield continue to work. However, it is not enough to apply the same fertilizers on the same soil using the same practices. We must continue to practice responsible and judicious fertilizer use that is site- and crop-specific by incorporating 4R methodologies – that is, right time, right place, right amount, and right source – and continuing proper education and informed recommendations on best practices to smallholder farmers.

We are one of the few organizations in the world that is capable of taking new ideas to improve soil fertility and plant nutrition technology from laboratory testing to pilot plant production tests to greenhouse tests and finally implementation in the field. What that means is that we do the research and practical feasibility studies behind fertilizer technology while also providing opportunities to test the technologies in various controlled agroecological simulations or in the real world.

Being SMaRT with our Soil

Most smallholder farmers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, have access to fertilizers containing only primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. But crops, like humans, need a full range of nutrients for healthy growth. Planting in healthy soil that is full of nutrients is key to producing larger amounts of healthy food.

Analyses indicate that soils across Africa are also deficient in secondary and micronutrients, such as sulfur, zinc, copper, and boron. IFDC’s research and field trials have shown that supplying these nutrients through balanced fertilizers can increase yields dramatically while nourishing the soil.

To address this nutrition challenge, IFDC developed the Soil-SMaRT approach. Soil-SMaRT is a step-by-step framework designed to deliver a balanced suite of nutrients to crops.

It all begins with the soil. By conducting soil tests on a broad scale, we can understand the extent of nutrient deficiencies, verify limitations by conducting nutrient omission trials, and develop specific, improved fertilizers for market. Once enough reliable, validated soil data have been collected, we develop soil nutrient and acidity maps. Maps are useful guides for developing crop-specific fertilizer blends that correspond to major soil types and crops. Further, they can inform policymakers about the needs for balanced fertilizers in various areas.

IFDC-developed soil fertility map for northern Ghana. The data show generally acidic to slightly acidic soils with deficiencies in phosphorus, sulfur, zinc, and boron. For farmers to increase productivity and realize the full benefits of investing in fertilizer, they must have access to products containing these plant nutrients.

After soil maps are created, we develop recommendations to determine which nutrients belong in specific fertilizers and at what rates. We develop recommendations through trials and field evaluations, which are then validated according to specific agro-ecological zones and crops.

Lastly, we transfer the technology to farmers. We work with governments and private companies to advertise new products and establish farmer demand while creating or supporting efficient supply channels so demand can be met.

While Soil-SMaRT is designed to be a step-wise process, work can begin on any level. If reliable soil tests have already been conducted, then our work can begin at mapping. If work has already been accomplished all the way to recommendations, then we can work on scalability and distribution to farmers.

Having healthy soils affects us all. Soil is key to doubling global yields by 2050, and we must work together to maintain adequate levels of nutrition and avoid degradation. Soil-SMaRT encourages collaboration and cooperation between public and private sectors to ensure sustainable delivery mechanisms for soil and plant nutrition. Through continued research on innovative nutrient solutions, we can build resilient and sustainable food systems capable of truly feeding the world.

Featured Photo Credit: Kenya Feed the Future Innovation Engine