Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

For more than 40 years, the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) has been a source of information on fertilizer, soil fertility, and plant nutrition, and a source of support and technical assistance to the agriculture sector and the fertilizer industry. IFDC is a leading center for the research and development of new fertilizer products and for promoting their rational use by means of agro-economic research to improve soil fertility, increase productivity and production, and improve food security and nutrition around the world with a major focus on developing countries.

The following comments serve as IFDC’s official contributions to the CoCoFe.

IFDC scientists believe the judicious use of fertilizer calls for a holistic approach, starting with good quality fertilizer products, with reduced contaminants, which greatly depends on the source of nutrients, beneficiation of mined feedstock, and the production process. When supplied with good quality products and knowledge on their proper application, farmers’ judicious use of fertilizer can produce sufficient, quality, nutritious, and safe food for a fast-growing population while addressing environmental and human health hazards. With a finite amount of resources — namely land, fertile soil, and fresh water — and in the context of climate change, additional factors to consider for promoting the appropriate use of fertilizer are:

  1. Increased investment to revamp agronomic and soil research for resilient agriculture, to innovate nutrient recycling in the context of a circular economy, and to develop the next generation of fertilizer products with lower contaminants, greater efficiency, and balanced nutrients congruent with advances in crop genetics, cropping technologies, and soil conditions.
  2. A better policy, legal, and regulatory framework to guarantee not only the best quality fertilizer products but also their distribution and rational use.
  3. The revamping of extension services for better technical assistance and training to encourage responsible fertilizer recommendations by the supply chain stakeholders and fertilizer use by farmers.

IFDC scientists and experts in fertilizer production, agronomy, and economics are well-positioned to support the development of the CoCoFe and its implementation through technical assistance and training to fertilizer supply and demand chain stakeholders.

Specific comments on the CoCoFe

Given the global scope of the CoCoFe, do you think the objectives are appropriate? If not, how would you add to them or modify them?

First, IFDC suggests establishing clearer goals for the CoCoFe from which the objectives can emanate. In addition, fewer objectives will help simplify the elaboration of the CoCoFe and perhaps facilitate its adoption.

IFDC also suggests combining the stated objectives 3 and 4 and to consider the following four objectives, which we believe embrace the CoCoFe goals:

  1. Increase food production by increasing yields to close the yield gap in developing countries and to supply the increasing global need of more, nutritious, and safer food;
  2. Optimize the efficient use of nutrients (organic and inorganic) to maximize benefits of better natural resource conservation (land, soil, and water) and effectively promote sustainable agriculture production systems;
  3. Minimize nutrient losses and the accumulation in the soil and in vegetative materials of contaminants and trace elements present in inorganic fertilizer and organic nutrient sources.

Considering the effects of climate change on agriculture, IFDC further suggests adding the following objective:

4. Support the adaptation of crops to imminent environmental changes for more resilient agriculture production systems considering balanced nutrient fertilizer products, nutrient recycling, and carbon sequestration.

In addition, although the CoCoFe is intended to address the use of fertilizer to “minimize environmental and human health impacts from pollutants from fertilizer,” it is necessary to clarify that the CoCoFe approach will only reduce such effects. However, a lot can be done to further reduce the impacts on environment and human health. Research and innovation should aim at improving the beneficiation of mined feedstock and the production processes of fertilizer to eliminate contaminants and non-nutritious trace elements (pathogens, organic and non-desirable chemicals) to enhance fertilizer quality.

What should the scope of the CoCoFe be? Which nutrient input sources should be included; only synthetic fertilizers, or also manure, biosolids, compost, etc.? Should other products such as bio-stimulants, nitrification inhibitors, urease inhibitors, etc., be included as well?

IFDC believes the scope of the CoCoFe should be on promoting the most efficient use of plant nutrients to effectively sustain agricultural production, which embraces inorganic fertilizer and organic nutrient sources. 

Considering the aim of the CoCoFe is “to assist member countries  to design policies and regulatory frameworks for the sustainable use of fertilizers,” and the nature of organic materials — which comprises multiple sources with erratic nutrient content depending on the organic material source — makes it difficult to standardize such materials as a source of nutrients, and therefore regulate it. On the contrary, inorganic nutrient sources/fertilizer, given their physical and chemical characteristics, facilitate standardization and regulation.

However, it is crucial to regulate organic materials (biosolids, compost, etc.) for contaminants and hazardous chemicals (heavy metals, pathogens, toxic organics —including pesticides —etc.). To that end, IFDC suggests developing a subset within the CoCoFe clearly addressing the recycling of organic materials to be used as a source of nutrients for food crops.

Recognizing that organic materials can be a valuable source of nutrients, in the traditional intensive production systems, they should be seen first as soil amendments to improve soil structure and increase microbial activity, water retention, and cationic exchange, among others, all of which facilitate the absorption of nutrients by the plant root; and second, as a source of nutrient supply to the soil and the plants. Nutrient supply from organic materials can be considered a positive externality in the context of a circular economy; therefore, organic materials should be supplementary to inorganic sources, not the main source of nutrients. The exception can be purely organic agricultural systems in which organic materials can be both soil amendments and the main source of nutrients.

With respect to the use of bio-stimulants, nitrification inhibitors, urease inhibitors, etc., they should be part of the discussion and the CoCoFe, since they can help improve nutrient use efficiency and achieve the stated environmental and perhaps human hazards objectives.

Additional comments:

  • Although IFDC supports better policy and regulatory framework for the responsible use of fertilizer, it is important to recognize that the regulatory burden from the adoption of the CoCoFe has the potential to impact the cost of supplying and using fertilizer. This has greater implications for developing countries, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, considering that fertilizer production in these countries is almost non-existent, and its use is low to negligible. This is especially true among small-scale agricultural producers, due in part to fertilizers’ relatively high retail price resulting from high transaction costs along the international and domestic supply chains. Therefore, the regulatory burden could hinder the efforts of international donor and government programs to reduce the retail cost of fertilizer.

Therefore, economic analyses may be needed to weigh the impact from the potential burden introduced by the CoCoFe as opposed to the impact of a lax regulatory system that will make countries vulnerable to questionable nutrient content in organic products and to hazardous contaminants and non-nutritious trace elements in inorganic fertilizers and organic products.

  • The CoCoFe has the potential to promote the responsible and judicious use of fertilizers if the right audience is brought into the consultation and discussion, and plenty of time is spent in mainstreaming the CoCoFe among the different stakeholders — a process that may take many rounds of discussions at different levels and consequently take several years before the CoCoFe comes to fruition and starts being implemented.