Improving the efficiency of fertilizer could save $1.1 billion annually in fertilizer cost

Improving the efficiency of fertilizer helps on-farm profitability and the environment.

Farmers around the world will tell you that fertilizers are an essential input for crops. Fertilizer is responsible for half of the world’s current food production and is considered an indispensable part of crop production. But the fact remains that the use of fertilizer has increased drastically in the last few decades. Globally, the amount of nitrogen use increased by more than 80% over the period 1980 to 2018 (FAO, 2021). Yet, it has been widely reported that fertilizer nutrient use efficiency (NUE) by crops is low, ranging between 25% and 50% depending on the crop, environmental conditions, and management practices (Hofmann et al., 2020; Herrera et al., 2016). The NUE is the product of two main components: nutrient uptake efficiency and utilization efficiency. Nutrient uptake efficiency is the ability of plants to take up nutrients from the soil, while nutrient utilization efficiency describes the capability of plants to assimilate and remobilize nutrients within the plant. Excessive and inefficient use of N fertilizer causes a significant amount of the applied N to be lost to the environment via nitrification, denitrification, leaching, and volatilization. From an economic perspective, improving NUE would enhance farm profitability as N fertilization is a major cost in crop production. Globally, a 1% increase in crop NUE could save about $1.1 billion annually in fertilizer cost (Li et al., 2020; Kant et al., 2011), a welcome picture as the cost of fertilizer remains variable.

 

Potential solutions to improve nutrient use efficiency

Biostimulant usage in agriculture is increasingly becoming a popular solution when it comes to fertilizer use, mostly due to its ability to increase the efficiency of the fertilizer, while contributing as a sustainable, regenerative product. Seaweed extracts are part of the biostimulant category and are well-known for their ability to help the plant overcome abiotic stressors. More recently, Acadian Plant Health’s R&D Team has been focused on a different use for these seaweed extracts – fertilizer efficiency.

“Our studies have shown that applications of our seaweed extract, Ascophyllum nodosum, lead to enhanced root development, increased root mass, and a stronger root system,” says Dr. Holly Little, Director of Research and Development at Acadian Plant Health™. “Theoretically, you could assume that bigger, stronger roots would lead to better absorption of nutrients from the soil. But as a science-based company, we wanted to prove it.”

“We started studying nutrient use and nutrient uptake as a focus in our research and the results certainly proved our theory. In  recent studies, the enhanced root growth shows improved absorptive function of roots leading to an increase in uptake of dissolved nutrients. Macronutrient absorption in particular increased, but also important micronutrients the plant uses as well.  Additionally we’ve seen changes in gene expression that affect nutrient uptake and movement within the plant, so plants grow better and are more productive under limited nutrition.”

What does this all mean for the agricultural industry? The use of seaweed extracts and responsible nutrient management principles could be considered a viable alternative to offset the yield penalty by reducing synthetic fertilizers. The research developed shows tremendous promise to improve nutrient use efficiency to make the crop more sustainable, efficient, and resilient. Knowing the current efficiency of nitrogen (N) fertilizers is low, ranging from 25% to 50%, the development and adoption of technologies and agronomic practices that improve fertilizer efficiency and reduce its environmental consequences are urgently needed.

“Our studies have shown that applications of our seaweed extract, Ascophyllum nodosum, lead to enhanced root development, increased root mass, and a stronger root system,” says Dr. Holly Little, Director of Research and Development at Acadian Plant Health™. “Theoretically, you could assume that bigger, stronger roots would lead to better absorption of nutrients from the soil. But as a science-based company, we wanted to prove it.”

 

Interested to learn more about Acadian Plant Health and our research on nutrient use efficiency?  Contact us with any questions.