International Fertiliser Society: Meeting Challenges through Innovation

December 9, 2012

Conference Cambridge Dec 2012.

What challenges?

The growing world demand for food. Scarcity of land and water. Ecological limits are almost reached. We must produce more with less environmental impact. Sustainable intensification.

Some believe that organic agriculture is the solution. But the production is too low. We need increases, not reductions. We need an ecologically better general agriculture.

What innovations?

Higher and more reliable yields. The ambitious English project Wheat 20-20 (20 tons/ha year 2020), a combination of plant breeding and agronomic development.

Better adaptation of inputs and resources. More efficient phosphorus fertilization, for instance placement (common in Sweden) and maybe foliar or seed application as complements.

Focus also on potassium and magnesium. Deficiencies, also shortterm, reduce stress tolerance and yields.

Cover crops. They reduce nitrate leaching and in addition provide organic matter and are positive for life in soils. They function also as break crops in rotations.

Manure is a great problem. Theoretically a good solution is to move animal production back to crop producing farms. Go back to mixed agriculture. But that does not work in our economic reality.

Two ways are worked on: to improve the manure efficiency at farm level and to process manure to marketable or at least transportable products which can be removed from the farm. However, it is not an easy problem to solve.

The longterm nitrogen efficency of manure is low. The most efficient method, injection,  has a longterm efficiency of 55% compared to mineral fertilizer. In practice the efficiency today is only half of that.

A problem mentioned is that economic realities often do not permit use of improved agronomic measures. This a big problem for the world development.

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Global price competition and development

December 5, 2012

A question:  Do you think global price competition for agricultural products is compatible with improved environment and sustainability?

If the answer is no or maybe not – what are the consequences?

This fantastic time we live in

December 2, 2012

No, it is not ironic. Never has good forces and intentions been greater than now. Never has knowledge and availability of information been greater. Never has the freedom been greater, although a great part of humanity suffers from poverty and despotism. Never has our resources been greater (?)

Let us take the opportunity to act for progress where we can.

A few ideas to think about:

Growth. Almost everybodu (there are exceptions) say we need it. At least the selfplaying finance sector needs it.

Growth can be a “zero point game”. Do we really want economic growth in Sweden at the expense of for instance India?

Real growth should mean increase in resources, for instance increased harvest of  solar energy by crops, forests och technology. Or increased efficiency of natural resources (although that is not necessarily registered by GDP).

Long term aspects need better consideration.  Our system is almost only guided by shortterm aspects.

Rulers making themselves permanent should be extinguished. Make them a threatened species.

Future Farming (FramtidsOdling) – a new concept starts

November 26, 2012

It seems the time is ripe.  We are 3 retired (almost) advisors/specialists/ generalists  presenting us under this umbrella. In fact specalistgeneralists could be appropriate.

Our goal is an efficient and sustainable agriculture, now and in the future.  High yields, well adapted agronomic measures, soil fertility, environment and biodiversity. More longterm perspectives than normally is possible.

This is not easy. We have a good agriculture but there is still scope. We have good advisors. We will not replace them but could be a complement. Add a somewhat more longterm focus.

There is a lot of innovative force in the farming community. We aim at being an easily available discussion partner, working mainly by phone, mail and internet.  Available, flexible, economic, resource efficient.

An exciting adventure.

Recycling. Phosphorus should have priority.

November 24, 2012

The food we eat contains nitrogen and phosphorus, important elements for everything living. It ends up as toilet waste. After treatment in sewage works most of the phosphorus and some of the nitrogen end up in sewage sludge. This contains also some heavy metals, bacteria, hormones, medicins and various chemicals.  Sludge (biosolids) is a kind of fertilizer containing especially phosphorus but some nitrogen and above-mentioned impurities. To apply it on food-producing soils , is that right?

There are processes where the sludge is burnt, pure phosphorus compounds are extracted and a clean phosphorus fertilizer is produced. Then we miss the nitrogen. Is that right?

Systems can be developed where the toilet waste is collected, hygienized and used more directly as fertilizer. Then we take care of both phosphorus , nitrogen as well as potassium and other nutrients. Unfortunately hormones , drugs and chemicals are included.  Physically it is a thin sludge to transport and distribute. Is that right?

We need some guidelines to choose.

Phosphorus is special for two reasons:

1. It is a limited resource. We know about mineral deposits for 10-20 generations, but then ?

2. All we take out from mineral deposits ends up in our environment, in fields, gardens, waste dumps, waters.  It is active and causes eutrophication. And we never get rid of it. It might move, but is still active.

These are two, as I see it, overriding reasons to give phosphorus priority, to keep down extraction from mineral deposits by recycling as much as possible.

Nitrogen is different.

1. We have unlimited resources,  80% of the air is nitrogen. But we need energy to make it active, and all kinds of energy can be used. The present oil and gas can be replaced by hydro- or solar energy or even bioenergy.

2. An important process, denitrification, removes active nitrogen from the biosphere and gives it back to the air. There is no unavoidable  accumulation.

3. Active nitrogen (ammonia, nitrate, nitrogen oxides) are environmenal pollutants. Research has suggested that we already exceed the limits of the globe in this respect.

The main priority for nitrogen is to avoid losses of active nitrogen. To handle the farm nutrients as efficiently as possible. (Organic nitrogen in for instance sludge is in fact a disadvantage in this respect). Environmental analysis should guide the development

Conclusion: Extract pure phosphorus when possible. The loss of nitrogen is no great disadvantage (provided there is no nitrogen pollution from that process)

There are local needs for more smallscale processes.

Catch crop effects in a wider context, cover crops.

November 21, 2012

Sweden has since several years a catch crop program. It has been focused on reduction of nitrogen leaching. A compensation is paid to the farmer to encourage the practice.

In previous posts on this blog the more general favourable effect of catch crops, on soil structure, on soil life, on organic matter content has been advocated. It is very encouraging that these issues now are discussed an recognized in an official report.

Catch crops can be transformed to cover crops, where even a harvest can be taken. Also this is mentioned, although the research and experience on this is scant. However,  at least in some favoured areas we can produce a second crop after for instance cereals.  Forage can be preserved as silage and used for biogas,  if  local biogas plants are established. In this way agriculture can substantially contribute to energy production and climate gas improvement.

Sustainable intensification

November 18, 2012

This is what the world needs. It is gratifying to note that this has been highlighted in the magazine Stockholm Waterfront. There is a program: More crop per drop.  In this respect it is important not o lose crop because of for instance unnecessary lack of required nutrients.

I seems to me that the “water sector” has been slow to realize or at least really recognize this relation. Intensive agriculture may have drawbacks for water quality. However, the intensification should be sustainable, which means  consideration of both agronomic and environmental aspects.

It is a formidable challenge, but inspiring.

Cadmium and health

November 12, 2012

Headlines in the press:  Cadmium in food gives health problems.

This is true according to research. Maybe it should be called potential problems. First, decades ago, kidney function was the issue. As work continues more adverse effects of cadmium are found.  Weaker skeleton, more fractures. Cadmium can be involved also in cancer.

The daily intake of cadmium is no direct problem, but for some groups the margin is close.  So – it seems important to reduce the cadmium in our food system. And quite a lot has been done. The fertilizers in the Swedish market are almost cadmium free, there are hard limits and reduction programmes for cadmium in sewage  sludge

Cadmium is a natural element present in all soils and in products from soils. What we can do is to reduce the cadmium flows in our environment. Personally I hope our low cadmium policy in fertilizers can continue and also that pure phosphorus can be extracted in the sewage works. The cadmium in our environment and the balance in the soil is a longterm issue.

But outside Scandinavia the cadmium problem has not the same  priority.  I asked English collegues about it: “Cadmium – is that a problem??”

It seems, however, that the cadmium issue in the world is going somewhat in the Swedish direction.

Cimate argument.

November 10, 2012

 

 

A column in Astronomy (Bob Berman):

Visiting a top scientist in Boulder, Colorado, Rodney Viereck.

They discussed the temperature development of the planet. Berman asked if the increase could be caused by changes in the sun. But Viereck showed that our upper atmosphere is colder now than 100 years ago. If more heat is captured and held in the lower atmosphere the upper layers will be cooler. This effect is caused by climate gases, absolutely not by the sun.

Perspectives on Global Warming.

November 5, 2012

A current goal is “by 2020 not more than 2 degrees warming compared to pre-industrial times”.  A very conservative figure could be less than 1 degree per 100 years.

The geological history tells us about previous global climate changes. 55 million years ago something called PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum) occurred. The average temperature of the planet increased by about 5 degrees. The probable cause is widespread volcanism and emission of carbon dioxide when the the Atlantic was opened up. From our distant viewpoint it seems dramatic but short, only 200 000 years. It lead to great changes of life on earth. But then the temperature was normalized again, when the carbon dioxide had been absorbed by the sea and land systems.

The change occurred during the first and last 10 000 – 20 000 years. If we say 10 000 it means a temperature rise of 0.05 degrees per year. Compare with our goal mentioned above.

In earlier times still more dramatic events occurred, seen in geological timescale. 250 million years ago, when the Perm era changed to Trias and only the forefathers of the dinosaurs had begun to form, the temperature was raised by 15 degrees in several steps. The reason again is probably intensive and longlasting volcanism, this time in Siberia. Coal layers in the area gave large amounts of carbon dioxide. The temperature in equatorial seas increased to 40 degrees, in land areas maybe 10-15 degrees more. This is a main extinction event in our global history. But the change took time, something like one degree per 10 000 years, which should mean 0.01 degrees per 100 years. This heat period lasted, with variations, four million years.

What is happening now is more intensive and dramatic than even PETM.

But we don’t notice it. Or do we?

(Background: several issues of Science)