How can we fight world hunger without relying on fertilisers?

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By Stefania Luca, Freelance Writer

Published May 23rd, 2022

As world hunger is increasingly considered in the context of climate change, it is crucial to adapt our methods of tackling it. Can we replace conventional fertilisers with innovations which increase yields without degrading the environment?

Ending world hunger by 2030 should not be regarded as a far-away fantasy goal to be taken care of sometime in the future—the world must make a tremendous effort now to fulfil this promise. As the world’s population is predicted to reach 8.6 billion by 2030, serious investments are needed to prevent even more people from becoming malnourished.

The world’s agriculture industry relies heavily on fertilisers in order to maintain high food production levels. | Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT / Flickr

Currently, we depend on fertilisers to produce our food. However, they do not come without drawbacks, and we need to improve how we use them or find new solutions to feed the growing population.

Producing food: from the Green Revolution to now

The Green Revolution took place between the 1950s and 1980s, and aimed to increase food production around the world. The Green Revolution is glorified in countries where it had a massive impact, such as China, India and Brazil. This makes sense as it saved the lives of millions, increased income, and reduced population growth in these countries.

It is speculated that a 10-year delay of the Green Revolution would have resulted in a cost of 17% GDP (gross domestic product) and increased the population of developing countries by around 223 million people.

‘World population is predicted to reach 8.6 billion by 2030.’

However, its methods had side effects: increased dependence on fertilisers and a multitude of environmental issues including ecosystem disruption, decreased biodiversity, soil nutrient depletion, and air and water pollution.

As well as the environmental issues caused by fertiliser overuse, we have another problem. Phosphorus, used in fertilisers, is being depleted at an alarming rate. This depletion will be aggravated by soil erosion. Most of the phosphorus used in agriculture is mined from the US, China and Morocco, and researchers estimate that these sources could run out in 50 to 100 years.

The Green Revolution dramatically increased crop yields in developing countries such as India. | Wandering Indian / Unsplash

We still rely heavily on fertilisers to produce our food—but should we rethink our dependence on them? Times have changed, and with them, the problems humanity is facing: in addition to world hunger, we are facing an environmental crisis that requires a sustainable approach.

Repairing what we have damaged

It seems that ending world hunger is like solving a puzzle where money, policies, education and the environment must fit together. This includes the challenge of trying to repair or at least mitigate some of the undesired consequences of the Green Revolution, including the effects of fertiliser overuse.

‘By 2012, the consumption of synthetic nitrogen reached 100 million tons worldwide.’

Specialists from different fields are coming together to find quick and sustainable solutions, while keeping in mind the urgency of the situation: resources are limited and humans need to act immediately. Besides this, we must protect the environment while looking for these greener remedies.

Meeting global food requirements while reducing fertiliser use could be achieved by boosting crop yield in new ways. This could include genetically modifying crops, and integrating recent advancements in biotechnology and machine learning to create new agricultural tools such as drones or smart-fertilisers.

One such approach involves controlling our global dependency on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. Studies show that by 2012, the consumption of synthetic nitrogen reached 100 million tons worldwide.

Bioengineering our way out of fertilisers

To reduce our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, rhizosphere engineering can come to the rescue.

The rhizosphere is composed of complex chemical processes that affect root absorption of nutrients and interact with the soil microbiome. | Wang L. (2022) / Cell Review

The rhizosphere refers to the interactions between roots and the surrounding soil, including processes involving microorganisms. It is the hub for nutrient flow and information exchanges between plants and the soil. Hence, understanding the complex processes that govern the rhizosphere could lead to improved pest management and higher yields.

Rhizosphere engineering involves modifying the microbes or the roots so that the outcome of their interaction increases plant production efficiency, reduces our need for fertilisers and provides environmental protection.

For this to be effective, we need smart fertilisers. Smart fertilisers are engineered to release nutrients over time, allowing the plants to use them fully. This can facilitate rhizosphere engineering by offering the plant a suitable quantity of nutrients.

‘To reduce our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, rhizosphere engineering can come to the rescue.’

New nano technologies of smart fertilisers involve equipping them with temperature, moisture and acidity sensors to ensure the optimal release of nutrients. This allows smart fertilisers to predict how factors such as weather and time will impact crop growth and soil nutrient availability.

This differs from conventional fertilisers by releasing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus when the plant needs them, therefore avoiding using too much (damaging the environment and wasting money) or too little (resulting in poor yields).

This technology uses machine learning and is still in the prototype stage, however researchers expect smart fertilisers to reach the market in three to five years.

An alternative to the use of fertilisers is producing genetically modified (GM) crops, so instead of applying fertilisers, we could potentially manipulate the genes of the plant to produce higher yields.

The overuse of fertilisers is harming the environment. | Etienne Girardet / Unsplash

GM technology is also being used by scientists to develop varieties of crops with high nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). In China, the overall NUE increased from 35% to 42%, from 2001 to 2014 as a result of better nitrogen management practises. Many are advocating for more integration of NUE methods in crop production, particularly in undeveloped provinces of the country which are more likely to have lower NUEs.

GM plants might provide a solution for the future. However, the proteins secreted by their roots can persist in the soil long after harvest, affecting the soil microbiome, so further investigation on how these interactions affect ecosystems and our ability to produce food is needed.

Necessary investments and policies: world hunger as a money game

Although the investments to end world hunger are estimated to be costly and hard to put into practice, not all facets of this issue are disheartening. There are low-cost options that seem to have a large hunger-reduction potential.

‘Not all facets of this issue are disheartening. There are low-cost options that seem to have a large hunger-reduction potential.’

These include agricultural expansion services such as integrated pest management, and investing in agricultural research and development; for example, investigating genetic improvement and more efficient irrigation and storage methods.

The World Food Programme (WFP) argues that policies and investments should focus on smallholder market support, local market development and increasing the efficiency of food supply chains.

Smallholder farmers form the majority of people living in poverty tend to be food insecure, although they are producing most of the world’s food. The WFP continues to develop models that connect smallholders with their national governments with the purpose of raising incomes and improving food security.

The ongoing war in Ukraine is predicted to deepen world hunger due to disruptions to the Middle East’s and Africa’s wheat supplies. Ukrainians themselves are struggling with critical food shortages and, as both Ukraine and Russia are major suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and corn, the rest of the world will suffer increased food prices.

The war in Ukraine is disrupting the food supply in many countries. | Feed My Starving Children / Flickr

In addition to this, Russia is one of the most important suppliers of fertilisers. Their recent cessation of fertiliser exports threatens to further exacerbate world hunger.

The WFP also brings attention to food system failures. We currently have the food to end world hunger, but annually waste 1.3 billion tonnes—a third of all the food produced for human consumption.

At this point we have to ask ourselves: is fighting world hunger strictly a struggle to optimise food production, or is it a tragic story about inefficient food systems?

This wide range of potential solutions gives us hope for a positive future. They empower us to look forward to a greener and more sustainable way of producing food, while also motivating us to combat world hunger without destroying the planet.

Featured Image: Feed My Starving Children | Flickr

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