GFAR blog

A GFAR webinar: Addressing soil fertility

by the GFAR Secretariat

Half of humanity is fed by fertilized-based foods.

But many farmers are struggling to source the fertilizers they need – and chemical fertilizers are also contributing to environmental degradation. So what’s the solution?

We all know that healthy, fertile soils are crucial for ensuring efficient, resilient and sustainable agrifood systems—and, in turn, global food security. Chemical fertilizers have long played a key role in achieving this. But obstacles to accessing them, coupled with their impact on biodiversity and links to climate change, mean we face critical questions regarding their future and how we can best foster sustainable development pathways.  

At the request of the European Commission and Germany, this issue was explored during a GFAR webinar on 27 February, 2023. Speakers from a range of organizations provided a global view of soil fertility challenges, discussing ways to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and ideas for how we might develop sustainable alternatives. With more than 360 registered participants from around the world, we enjoyed an invaluable exchange of knowledge and experience.

Fertilizers: a perfect “global storm”

The use of chemical fertilizers is a key solution employed by farmers worldwide to boost soil fertility—and in turn, boost plant productivity and increase yields. As such, they serve as an extremely important tool for ensuring food security. In fact, half of humanity is fed by fertilizer-based foods.

But many farmers have been struggling to source the fertilizers they need. Why? The convergence of the war in Ukraine and its impact on the availability and price of natural gas with the ongoing repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to disrupted supply chains and significant price hikes. Many are affected by this, but small-scale producers are particularly hard hit.

At the same time, although countries need fertilizers, excessive chemical fertilizer use is causing serious environmental damage—including by polluting soils and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, sustainable soil management that does not rely on chemicals is needed in the medium and long term. 

A window of opportunity?  

Could the current context of high fertilizer prices and disrupted supply actually present a window of opportunity for reducing overuse of chemicals and developing alternative solutions that maintain soil fertility? Most of the speakers who participated in this webinar think so. But, they agreed, there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach: a balance needs to be struck.

On the one hand, measures are needed to ensure that farmers can access fertilizers and use them efficiently in areas of the world where fertilizer use remains low. In Africa, for example, the development of a model or roadmap for organized fertilizer trade and use systems tailored to the region’s needs is critically important if we want to tackle poverty and hunger.

But in regions of the world where chemical fertilizer use is high, such as Europe and Asia, the speakers argued that it is time to consider innovations and technologies that simultaneously reduce chemical fertilizer-dependency, minimize environmental damage, and maximize productivity. They pointed to a variety of examples, such as the production and use of organic and bio-fertilizers, increasing the production of legumes to increase the capture of nitrogen and promoting agroforestry that recycles nutrients from deeper levels of soil.

A particularly promising solution discussed during the webinar was Agroecology. An integrated approach that “simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems” (FAO), agroecology combines science with local producers’ knowledge, helping to deliver solutions that are adapted to local contexts. This, speakers argued, holds significant potential for the development of sustainable agri-systems focused on improved resource use and measures to boost resilience, biodiversity, and soil health—thus laying the foundations for more sustainable farming practices. You can read more about the core principles of Agroecology here and here.

Government roles in promoting alternatives

Many governments offer chemical fertilizer subsidies, but the cost of these has grown dramatically—in many cases consuming some 50% of national government spending in agriculture. The prioritization of the use of unsustainable agricultural inputs poses a serious challenge to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—particularly SDGs 1 (no poverty) and 2 (zero hunger). Governments should therefore be encouraged to move away from subsidizing chemical fertilizers and instead promote sustainable agricultural practices.

Thanks to our participants!

Many thanks to all who participated in this lively and extremely informative webinar. The discussions during this event will inform the development of GFAR’s future work on this issue—including the establishment of an informal working group bringing together key partners to define collaborative work on this issue, and Agroecology in particular.

GFAR holds regular webinars so that members and partners can exchange ideas and expertise.

Upcoming events will be advertised in our newsletter (sign up here) and on Twitter

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