The mere existence of this job highlights the crucial importance of fertilizer for a nation soon to have a billion mouths to feed. In the United States, we may not need a cabinet-level Department of Fertilization. Yet we’d be wise to pay a lot more attention to the strategic significance of fertilizers in our agricultural and energy policies.
Here’s a little background – we’re currently in the midst of a corn boom. In a new report, the Department of Agriculture says that American farmers have planted almost 93 million acres of corn this year, up 19 percent from last year. Since the Second World War, we haven’t grown more corn in a single year.
The corn boom is fueled by the ethanol boom. The rising cost of energy and mounting concerns about climate change have motivated everyone from venture capitalists to ordinary consumers to think about alternative sources of production.
That’s good news, because we need to develop sources of energy far removed from the oil fields of an unstable Middle East.
Every new opportunity tends to present new challenges, however, and the drive to adopt renewable fuels is no different. One of the most significant new challenges involving the corn and ethanol boom’s has to do with fertilizer: We’re going to need more fertilizer to meet our needs.
The situation is this: Corn needs nitrogen to grow. In normal years, farmers in the Midwest ‘corn belt’ get what they need from fertilizer and crop rotation.
Soybeans pull nitrogen from the air and deposit it in the soil. When corn plants follow soybeans in a particular field, it requires as much as one-third less nitrogen fertilizer as it would otherwise. As a result, many farmers rotate fields back and forth between corn and soybeans. It keeps the soil healthy and saves money.
With corn acres hitting new highs, however, a lot more fields will see corn follow corn. This year, for example, soybean plantings are down more than 11 million acres with about 10.5 million of those acres now planted in corn.
That’s okay, when fertilizer is abundant. Yet the current demand for corn is extraordinarily large. As the biofuel energy sector continues to diversify production with grasses in addition to corn, the demand for accessible and affordable fertilizer will only increase.
Other ingredients also must find their way into a healthy cornfield, such as phosphate (usually from Florida) and potash (typically from Canada). Getting these products to farmers will become increasingly important as we expect farmers to meet our energy needs. Improving our delivery infrastructure systems—highway, rail and river–is also essential.
The bottom line is that the United States doesn’t just need a strategic energy plan. As unglamorous as it sounds, we also need a strategic fertilizer plan. In fact, the fertilizer plan must be integrated fully into our strategic energy policy plans. We can’t have one without the other.
Creating a Secretary of Fertilization or a federal fertilization czar is probably not the way to go. Yet we must bring together all stakeholders, in both the public and private sector, to look at this situation.
A long-term solution will guarantee that American farmers have enough production capacity to meet our country’s demand for fertilizer–and thus for food, feed and alternative energy. We have to examine short-range challenges as well: If next winter is a cold one, the price of natural gas will go up, placing additional pressure on fertilizer companies.
The corn and ethanol booms are not flukes. We’re going to grow a lot more corn and produce a lot more ethanol in the coming years. We must adjust to this new reality.
Bill Horan, a Board Member for Truth About Trade and Technology, grows corn, soybeans and grains on a family farm in Northwest Iowa. Bill Horan actively supports the biofuels industry.