More Fertiliser Needed To Maintain Global Food Production

Food security is of growing concern for many countries thanks to anthropogenic influences like overpopulation and of course the big CC (climate change). World hunger has fallen slightly in recent years with the Global Hunger Index showing that across the studied nations hunger had fallen by a quarter since 2000, however the progress made is precariously balanced on the impact we have on the environment.

You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about world hunger and food security on a wildlife blog. Well last week a study was released claiming that to meet future demands for food the world must significantly increase its use of phosphorous based fertilizers; something that could have detrimental impacts on our environment.

In the 19th Century as a mechanical revolution was happening across Britain’s fields the demands for phosphates rocketed to supplement the growing intensity of farming. Whereas previously manure and bones had sufficed in providing essential nutrients for crops such as phosphates, farmers were searching for more ways to improve their now nutrient-deficient soils.

We’ve all got to eat so why’s this a problem, like I said earlier food security is a serious worry so good lets pump those nutrients back into the ground. It’s not that simple when you have intensively farmed fields as the soil is more simple and there are less roots to catch the nutrients and keep them in the system which unfortunately leads to them escaping the soil and leaching into rivers, streams and eventually oceans. If you don’t know what high levels of phosphorous can do to our marine ecosystems take a look at the infamous example of Lake Erie.

Satellite Image of Algae Blooms swamping Lake Eerie, 2011. Image by MERIS/ESA, processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS

Satellite Image of Algae Blooms swamping Lake Erie, 2011. Image by MERIS/ESA, processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS

Agricultural runoff of phosphates have caused huge algae blooms in Lake Erie as well as dead zones. Not only does this obviously impact upon the wildlife found in the lake but it can have a huge affect on the people who live in the local area. In 2014 the toxic algal bloom caused the drinking water supply for the city of Toledo, Ohio to be shut down for three days.

The other huge problem with increasing your use of fertilisers is that they release nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane all of which contribute to climate change. Thus there is the potential for this to become one giant circle; climate change threatens food security due to fluctuating and unpredictable weather patterns as well as any social upheaval it may cause. This in turn requires us to produce more food, which involves using more fertilizers as our intensively farmed soils cannot take much more and have little nutrients of their own left. The fertilizers then release gases into the atmosphere which merely accentuate the problem. It’s the catch 22 of food security.

So how do we increase food production in a more sustainable way? We have to look after our soil health. Tony Juniper wrote about this in his book What Nature Does For Britain. Speaking to farmer Iain Tolhurst he established how a farm can feed the soil instead of the plants. His farm revolves around soil health instead of the crops that are grown, through the use of crop rotations, green manures and most importantly keeping the nutrients in the soil. He makes sure that there is no patch of bare soil even if that means planting weeds. A combination of clover and grasses means that he doesn’t need industrial quantities of fertiliser.

Of course there are other methods as well, for example anaerobic digestion technologies and phosphate-capture technology. What is evident however is that artificially putting nutrients back into the system instead of working with nature. It is only with the invention of intensive farming that we have started to modify the ecological systems which help us grow food, however it is entirely possible to return to these systems to create more sustainable food security.

Which links me back to why I am writing about food security on a wildlife blog; wildlife and agriculture are closely interlinked although in the past agriculture has destroyed much of the nature we are now trying to protect. They both require certain ecological systems to be healthy and they can both help each other to prosper if we just take the time to invest.


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Emily Stewart
Owner of Inspirewildlife - a site dedicated to sharing positive conservation news stories from around the world. Zoo Management Graduate from University of Chester
Emily Stewart

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