Nitrogen Shortages and Solutions

December 10, 2021 | Marie Versteeg

Nitrogen Shortages and Solutions

With the global shortage of nitrogen fertilizer making the news, experts are predicting that global crop yields will be reduced next year. The nitrogen shortage is due in large part to the rising cost of natural gas, which is used to make the fertilizer. While many Canadian farmers are taking a wait-and-see approach to buying fertilizer, the shortage could be a sign that it’s time to reconsider how much we rely on nitrogen.

At CFFO’s Provincial Council last month, guest speaker Ralph Martin offered some perspective on modern nitrogen use. Martin is a retired professor of plant agriculture from the University of Guelph and the author of Food Security: From Excess to Enough.

As Martin reported, 30–50% of all global agricultural energy use goes toward making nitrogen. Here in North America, where we are highly dependent on synthetic fertilizer, it takes ten calories of energy input to produce a single calorie of food.

What does this mean? Current practices are inefficient, and we’re facing a future that will demand more prudent use of our resources. For example, only 35% of the nitrogen applied to crops is used. The rest runs into rivers, lakes and natural environments.

It might be worth rethinking our nitrogen use.

Martin offers a number of solutions. He points to the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program as an obvious option. The 4R Principles are “Right Source @ Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place.” CFFO has been a strong supporter of 4R Nutrient Stewardship.

Martin also cited recent research into the use of split nitrogen applications in corn. University of Guelph researchers strongly recommend putting on a low to moderate rate of nitrogen at the beginning of the season and then planning a second application just before silking. Their research demonstrated both economic and environmental benefits.

Perhaps surprisingly, Martin also suggested that wasted food is a key to addressing the problem. Even with lower yields, there would be enough food if we as consumers wasted less. Reducing this waste could enable us to feed one billion extra people if we applied already existing solutions to the problem.

There are a lot of ways to tackle the challenge. Martin also suggested reducing the amount of food-grade grains fed to livestock, using small autonomous vehicles to better apply variable nitrogen rates, using different catalysts to manufacture nitrogen with less energy, and even restructuring sewage systems to produce sustainable fertilizer to replace urea.

In short, the solutions are out there. We can feed a hungry world on less when we properly care for the abundance we already have.

The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily represent CFFO policy. The CFFO Commentary is heard weekly on CFCO Chatham, CKXS Chatham, CKNX Wingham, and CHLP Listowel.