The global challenges of food security and climate change need to be addressed in parallel. More food needs to be produced, but without releasing more greenhouse gases.
Climate change will in turn affect agriculture, as several regions will face extreme weather occurrences and changes in rainfall patterns and temperature.
Environmental concern is a main pillar of sustainable agriculture. Farming has to optimize the use of resources to preserve biodiversity and protect soils and ecosystems. At the same time farming has to maintain long-term economic viability.
Land Use Change
Agriculture is a major contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) which drive global warming. The sector accounts for about one quarter of total worldwide emissions. Land use change (LUC) accounts for nearly half of the sector’s emissions; about 12 percent of the world total.
LUC implies the conversion of land, especially forests, into cultivated farmland. This transformation releases large amounts of carbon dioxide CO2 stored in biomass. Forests and natural land are considerable carbon storages or sinks, indicating that agriculture and forestry may be a major contributor in sequestering GHGs.
Clearing forests or peat land for farming has been a major strategy to increase agricultural production, and is still used at an alarming rate. However this contributes immensely to global warming and the loss of biodiversity.
Today, it is commonly accepted that LUC has to be avoided. Still, land will – and has to – be turned into farmland, also to compensate for losses to urbanization and industrialization. The major intervention to counter LUC is to increase output from existing farmland.
Fertilizer Carbon Footprint
The necessary sustainable intensification of world agriculture requires a transfer of knowledge and the implementation of modern technologies and management practices. These include balanced fertilization and the use of low-carbon fertilizers. The crucial role of mineral fertilizers with regards to food security is illustrated by the fact that half the world’s food stems from the use of mineral fertilizers.
The continuous application of fertilizers is necessary to replenish the soil with essential nutrients, which are removed with the crops when they are harvested. Yara advocates balanced fertilization: the combined use of organic and inorganic nutrients, where organic materials available at the farm should be applied first, supplemented by mineral fertilizers to reach optimum nutrition levels.
At the same time, we strongly recommend application to be as precisely tailored to the plant’s specific needs as possible. If too much mineral fertilizer is used, this carries an economic cost to the farmer as well as an environmental one for society. If too little is applied, this implies lower yields and sub-optimal use of the farmland.
Yara’s crop nutrition programs help farmers to choose the right product and to apply it in the most efficient way – at the right time, with the right amount.
The production of nitrogen fertilizers is an energy-intensive process with fossil fuels as the major energy source and raw material. The emission of GHGs (CO2 and N2O) from fertilizer production accounts for about 3 percent of total agricultural emissions. Studies indicate that the net effect of mineral fertilizer use over the past decades has prevented huge amounts of GHG emissions. This is due to reduced land use change as yield levels have increased.
Yara has developed a catalyst technology that greatly reduces the GHG emissions from our plants. As these are also rated among the most energy efficient in the world, we can produce low-carbon fertilizers. In some markets these are offered with a Carbon Footprint Guarantee, making it possible for farmers and the food industry to reduce their footprint – with Tropicana orange juice in Florida as one example.
The complete carbon footprint of crop production can be measured by applying life-cycle assessment (LCA), a method pioneered by Yara scientists. Through LCA, emissions derived from the production, transportation and application of fertilizers, as well as from other farming inputs, are calculated. LCA also enables comparative studies of different fertilizers and application rates, effectively pinpointing differences in environmental impact.
Building on our accumulated crop knowledge and extensive R&D as a source of innovation, we have changed the traditional approach of fertilizer application: Rather than fertilizing the soil, we target the plant itself. By increasing precision we aim to maximize uptake and minimize waste, including unwanted runoffs to the environment.
The use of mineral fertilizers can thereby be kept at the desired level defined by the crop, reducing the carbon footprint further. Our field studies show that, even in relatively advanced agriculture, there is room for increasing yields while decreasing the use of nitrogen (N) fertilizers. Trials indicate the potential to reduce the carbon footprint by 10–30 percent by increasing N use efficiency.
Yara’s Crop Nutrition Concept, supported by Precision Farming Tools help growers to keep profitability up and environmental impacts down.