July 14, 2015

Fertilizers are necessary to feed the world

Dr. Pedro Sanchez spoke with Yara about the need for fertilizers to feed the world, the negative impact of excessive fertilizer use and what would happen if the world went organic.
Pedro Sanchez
Pedro Sanchez

Professor Sanchez, Director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is also the 2002 World Food Prize laureate, a 2004 MacArthur Fellow, and was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 2012. He has conducted research in more than 25 countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa and was Director General of the World Agroforestry Center and Professor of Soil Science at North Carolina State University. He also served in the Yara Foundation Board.

Why is mineral fertilizer essential for modern agriculture?

“Fertilizers are absolutely necessary if the world is going to be able to feed 9 or 10 billion people and by 2050. During the green revolution in 60s and 70s in Asia, fertilizers accounted for about half of the yield increase. Sub Saharan Africa is now increasing its crop yields for the first time since records started in the 1960s – cereal yields are still very low but the yields of cereals have increased by 50 percent and a lot of that is due to the increased use of fertilizer and better varieties of the crops.”

“Fertilizers, when appropriately managed in terms of the right source, rate of application, placement and timing do not do any damage to the soil. I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo last month where a group of farmers told me that fertilizers poison the soil. I told them: if that would be the case then most of the people in the world would be dead. They understood that.”

Why do you think mineral fertilizers are misunderstood by some?

“There is a common belief in the rich world that organic fertilizers are better than mineral fertilizer. If either organic or mineral fertilizers are applied at excessive rates they will not poison the soil but they can pollute the ground water and certainly pollute the atmosphere with more greenhouse gases. Many people don’t understand that.”

“A lot of them are the urban elites in cities like New York, Frankfurt or Oslo, who have no understanding of agriculture and they begin to get these ideas. This has to be a matter of education and to show with data to those who are willing to listen.”

This article is the first of two-parts. The second part comes out later this week.