Plant Nutrients Secure Our Food and Future

The California Air Resources Board has explicitly stated that regulating fertilizers would not provide any value to its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In a time where the conversation about health, nutrition and environmental sustainability is more critical than ever, the role of fertilizers in agriculture emerges as a vital topic for discussion. Western Plant Health (WPH), representing fertilizer companies and agricultural retailers, emphasizes the indispensable function of plant nutrients in fostering healthy plant growth, improving soil fertility and ensuring food security.

Just as humans take multivitamins to fill dietary gaps and increase our health, plants require a balanced intake of nutrients to thrive. Fertilizers deliver essential minerals and vitamins to the plant, acting as a multivitamin that ensures plants receive the necessary nourishment. These nutrients promote robust growth and enhance the plant’s ability to resist the effects of diseases, retain water and withstand drought conditions. Fertilizers lay the groundwork for a more resilient agricultural ecosystem by strengthening a plant’s natural defenses.

The benefits of proper fertilizer use extend far beyond the individual plant. They contribute to a wide range of positive outcomes, including soil fertility, increased crop yields and the revitalization of local ecosystems.

Food Insecurity
The number of people affected by hunger globally rose by 828 million in 2021, representing an increase of 46 million people since 2020 and 150 million more since 2019.
In California, the fourth-largest economy in the world, “3,571,920 people are facing hunger, and of them, 1,165,400 are children.”

Increased crop productivity has profound impacts on communities grappling with food insecurity. Increased production of healthy food translates into greater food security by providing more diversified food selections at reduced prices. This is an important link in providing a lifeline for populations vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.

Many of our underserved communities face food insecurity and lack access to healthy and fresh food. As a result, these individuals are at an increased risk of developing diet-related health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Malnutrition can negatively impact children, who need a balanced diet to grow and develop properly.

Food insecurity can also lead to increased stress, anxiety and depression, harming a person’s overall well-being.

The fertilizer industry has initiatied a mill tax self-assessment to undertake research and educate growers and consumers on the most environmentally safe use of fertilizers.

Protecting Local Ecosystems
Healthier plants allow for more production per acre. This means more food without converting natural lands into food production. This is an important contribution from fertilizers. California and the U.S. have not had to engage in the type of land clearing we see in other parts of the world, resulting in the dramatic loss of native plant and animal species.

Fertilizers play a critical role in agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability, contributing significantly to the preservation of local ecosystems. Healthy plants support a diverse array of life forms by providing habitat and food for a wide range of organisms, from microorganisms in the soil to insects and larger animals, thus fostering biodiversity.
Using fertilizers can help mitigate soil erosion and degradation, two significant ecosystem threats. By promoting vigorous plant growth, fertilizers ensure more plants are available to hold soil in place with their root systems, reducing erosion caused by wind and water. Additionally, healthy plant cover decreases the likelihood of soil degradation by protecting the soil surface from the direct impact of raindrops and reducing surface runoff.

In addition, healthy plants with adequate nutrient supply are more efficient at using water, an aspect critical in areas prone to drought or where water is scarce.

Through improved plant health, fertilizers can enhance a plant’s ability to absorb water, reducing the need for frequent irrigation and thus conserving water resources. This efficiency supports plant life and sustains water availability for other uses within the ecosystem.

Environmental Stewardship and Best Management Practices
Over the past couple of decades, concerns have been raised about historic nitrogen contributions by dairies and fertilizer applications by growers that have resulted in nitrate contaminations in groundwater. The concerns are linked to allegations by some interests that nitrate contamination from dairies and fertilizer use has resulted in infant methemoglobinemia, or what is more commonly referred to as Blue Baby Syndrome.

Blue Baby Syndrome can result in cognitive deficits, sensory impairments, developmental delays and other difficulties. Consumption of excessively high levels of nitrate-contaminated drinking water can, in theory, lead to Blue Baby Syndrome. However, it is important to note there has never been an instance of Blue Baby Syndrome from nitrates in agricultural groundwater or drinking waters in California.

Even though there has never been an instance in California, the fertilizer industry proactively chose to address these concerns, and over 30 years ago, WPH sponsored legislation that established a fertilizer mill tax self-assessment to undertake research and educate growers and consumers on the most environmentally safe use of fertilizers. The program is overseen by CDFA to ensure the research is conducted objectively and all results are released for public evaluation. This program, the Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP), has provided millions of dollars of research and education funds to improve the environmental stewardship of fertilizers.

FREP has spearheaded the development of tools like nitrate quick-strips, one of the most used tools now by growers to assess N requirements of crops, identifying crop specific application rates, and the development of the Certified Crop Advisor Program (CCA). The CCA Program is a professional certification for crop consultant professionals who evaluate the nutrient needs of crops and the appropriate fertilizer application rates so growers can comply with California’s State and Regional Water Quality Control Board nitrate regulations.
The FREP Program remains the leading funding source for establishing fertilizer application rates to maximize production while minimizing potential environmental impacts. It is providing millions of dollars to educate disadvantaged growers who traditionally have not participated in educational programs. It has also provided valuable dollars to improve growers’ irrigation practices to improve the environmentally safe use of fertilizers.

In recent years, allegations have been raised that fertilizers contribute to climate change. In response to these allegations, through CDFA FREP, the fertilizer industry provided hundreds of thousands of research dollars to assess if fertilizers like N fertilizers were contributing to greenhouse gases and climate change. To ensure the objectivity of the research, it was conducted and assessed in coordination with research conducted by UC Berkley, the California Energy Commission and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The results clearly demonstrated fertilizers were not responsible for greenhouse gases or contributing to climate change. The results were so demonstrably clear that CARB explicitly stated regulating fertilizers would not provide any value to its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since this multi-agency research was conducted, there has been no peer-reviewed studies that have demonstrated a need for the regulation of fertilizers to protect air quality.

WPH members are leaders in environmental stewardship through our commitment to translating the research provided by FREP and other research programs into educational programs and best management practices for the use of conventional and organic fertilizers. Every year, hundreds of agriculture professionals come together to hear and ask questions of researchers on new research to improve the environmentally safe use of fertilizers. The conference is held jointly between WPH and CDFA FREP so the audience can benefit from both academic research and how this information can be translated for practical field use by industry agronomists.

Growth, Resilience and Well-Being
The role of fertilizers in agriculture mirrors the function of multivitamins in human health: they are essential for growth, resilience and well-being.

WPH’s advocacy for the sustainable use of plant nutrients is grounded in a vision of a world where agriculture and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. We underscore the universal importance of nourishment and care by drawing attention to the parallels between human and plant nutrition.

As our state, nation and world navigate food security challenges and environmental sustainability, the responsible use of fertilizers ensures a future where our crops and our communities can flourish.

To ensure the benefits of plant nutrients are realized, WPH will continue to promote fertilizer management practices and education programs that promote sustainable and responsible use. Our educational and training programs will continue to give growers the knowledge and tools to apply fertilizers responsibly, maximizing their positive impact while safeguarding against potential environmental harm.

Global Hunger, United Nations:
Californian’s Facing Hunger: