VFRC Publications - Page 9

Fundamentals for a Paradigm Shift Fertilizers Feed Plants and Plants Feed People Life on earth begins with plants that use sunlight as the source of energy to convert inorganic water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and nutrients into organic forms such as proteins, fats, sugars and vitamins. The plant material is the basis of food for humans and animals. Sunlight and CO2 are abundantly available, while water and the most beneficial nutrients are often less available to plants, which leads to stunting or stopping growth. Toward feeding 10 billion people. Human intervention, therefore, is essential to convert inert nutrient molecules into reactive molecules to fertilize plants. Human ingenuity led to the development of the Haber-Bosch process exactly one hundred years ago. This process allows humans to convert inert N2 into reactive N as urea and ammonium fertilizers; a process that is still in use today. Phosphorus, K and other nutrients are obtained from mining, and with some basic chemical processing converted into reactive nutrients for plant uptake. Crop yields have boomed since the 1950s with the increased use of NPK-containing fertilizers as a major driving force, along with improved crop varieties and crop protection. These technological breakthroughs in biology, along with auxiliary technologies like mechanization, are the pre-conditions that allow us to feed all seven billion people today, with prospects to feed over 10 billion in a sustainable manner.6 Life begins with plants that convert inorganic lifeless material into organic compounds as food. Under natural conditions, reactive nitrogen (N) for plant metabolism is obtained from legumes that live in symbiosis with bacteria that convert inert atmospheric N2 into usable form, a process known as biological nitrogen fixation. Other nutrients, including phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and micronutrients,5 become available only through slow soil weathering. The productivity of plants under these natural conditions remains low, at levels known from the most advanced ancient civilizations such as in China [