Nutrient management ranks #65 on Drawdown’s list of climate solutions, with potential to eliminate 1.81 gigatons of carbon dioxide and save a total of US$102.3 billion by 2050.
Nitrogen fertilizers have boosted crop productivity over the years, Drawdown states. However, they’ve also created an influx of free-range nitrogen that can cause algae blooms, create ocean dead zones, and ruin soil’s organic matter. Not only that but, “nitrous oxide, created from nitrate fertilizers by soil bacteria, is 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its atmospheric warming effect.”
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Nutrient management can be an effective and efficient way to limit unused nitrogen fertilizer and ensure plants absorb as much as possible. According to Drawdown, all it takes is adherence to the four Rs: “Right source, right time, right place, and right rate.”
The right source means aligning the needs of a particular plant with the fertilizer used. The right time and right place are about “managing fertilizer applications to deliver nitrogen when and where crop demand is highest.” But it’s the right rate that’s the most significant key to nutrient management.
Overall, farmers are more likely to use more fertilizer than less because of the pressure to produce crops and the lack of incentives for fertilizer efficiency. “Nitrogen fertilizers remain relatively cheap in high production areas and are often subsidized,” Drawdown states. In order to increase the popularity of nutrient management, farmers need access to incentives, education, and support, but regulations can also play a role. For example, some farms in Vermont must now have nutrient management plans to curb pollution.
Despite some progress, many challenges remain in implementing nutrient management, beginning with the priorities countries set. “Nations that rely more on domestic production for food security, as well as revenue from export markets, often prioritize production over environmental impact,” Drawdown explains.
The data indicate that the use of nitrogen fertilizers keeps growing to meet high demand for food. Yet, nutrient management can deliver powerful environmental gains: According to The United Nations Environment Programme, just a 20% improvement in nutrient efficiency would reduce nitrogen fertilizer volumes by 20 million tons.