Special K : Valiam
"Fertilisers are routinely added to soil to enhance plant growth and increase crop yields. They include three main macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). If any of these macronutrients were to become unavailable or inaccessible to agriculture, a global food crisis of unprecedented scale would likely ensue.
Potassium is integral to plant growth and animal health, but it is a non-renewable resource. Unlike nitrogen and phosphorus, whose supply and recycling details are well-documented, little is known about the potassium supply and consumption cycle. Although potash, the raw material used to produce potassium fertilisers, is abundant, it is located in the northern hemisphere, meaning its availability in the tropics involves a high transport cost.
By 2050, global demand for grain is expected to have increased by 60%, while global cropland area will have increased by only 10%. Estimates show that crop production needs to increase by 25%-70% above current levels to meet 2050 demand, but emissions and nutrient losses must drop dramatically in order to restore and maintain ecosystem functions. Can countries work together to close yield gaps in the Global North and South in order to feed humanity by 2050, when the global population is expected to exceed 9bn?"
"As #2018 draws to a close we’re saying goodbye to the Bauer team, who have constructed 7.2km of concrete d-wall panels at the #WoodsmithMine site. A big thanks to the whole team for their hard work and commitment."
"In 2016, just over half of the UK’s food supply originated outside the country, including 30% from the EU, 5% from Africa and 4% from South America. After Brexit, if the UK’s food imports originate less from the EU and more from countries in the Global South, the gaps between nutrient outputs and fertiliser inputs could widen (Figure 2).
The UK is effectively mining nutrients from soils in the world’s poorest countries, which have no local fertiliser production. This makes food supplies even more vulnerable – especially when factoring in ongoing pressures such as climate change, which pose a significant risk to global food security. There are, however, opportunities for countries with no local fertiliser production to establish it, especially where there are known deposits that could be mined.
In many low and middle-income countries, minimal fertiliser is used for growing crops. Zambia uses the most fertiliser in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, at 46.2kg per hectare. This figure pales in comparison to the amount used in EU countries – 160.1kg per hectare. Latin America and the Caribbean use 127.9kg per hectare, and North America uses 126.6 kg per hectare. Countries with low fertiliser production should not necessarily be raising their fertiliser input to the same level as those with high inputs, because overuse is undesirable for increasing yields over the long term. To sustain the global food supply, fertiliser inputs will need to increase, but potassium inputs may need to double to compensate for what is removed by crops. In addition, intensification of agricultural lands is likely to be required in order to feed the rapidly growing populations in the developing world."
"What can be done about this global challenge? Local potassium fertiliser production in the Global South is urgently needed to enable agricultural systems in developing countries to feed local populations. National governments need to support geological exploration of potassium-bearing minerals such as potassium feldspar in Malawi, Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s clear that the problem of potassium deficiency and other mineral resources for agriculture are not merely a global trade concern, and that much work remains to be done.
Geologists, agronomists and soil scientists must drive forward scientific initiatives to identify new potassium-bearing minerals and explore conventional mineral-based fertilisers in developing countries. Agronomic knowledge also needs to increase to allow us to understand the potassium status of soils, especially in Africa. This approach has been pioneered in Brazil, where the use of novel locally derived ‘remineralisers’ is federally regulated.
In addition, new markets need to be developed for alternative potassium fertilisers – a process that requires scientists, policymakers and economists to work together. The UK and EU countries stand to benefit from working with the Global South to secure food supplies both locally and globally. They can do this by discovering and investing in innovations such as mineral recycling, alternative mineral resources and alternative farming practices that improve soil quality and maximise yields.
Scientific and policy leadership from the UK could help the developing world reach targets for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to make potassium consumption and production responsible and sustainable. We must understand the impact that local consumption has on the global market – not just for potassium, but also for the other minerals and nutrients needed to maintain a healthy diet."
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