Engaging with 4R Nutrient Stewardship

By: Lara Moody, Director of Stewardship Programs, The Fertilizer Institute

The Challenge

Crop advisors know that nutrients, like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are essential for growing crops – but similar to calories in our diets too much of a good thing can become a problem.   Today, many policymakers, environmental groups and the media representatives both nationally and at the state level, are increasingly focused on fertilizers as a problem for the environment, not a solution to meeting the food needs of a growing population.  While there is not a one size fits all answer, we know that mandatory rate reductions and input limits are not an environmental, economic or socially beneficial answer either. Alternatively, 4R nutrient stewardship that utilizes fertilizer best management practices addressing the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, the right time, and in the right place, provides the foundation for a science-based framework to achieve sustainable plant nutrition management.  In short, 4R practices are good for the grower and good for the environment.

Fertilizer is a component of sustainable crop production, but agriculture professionals know that in excess, nutrients contribute to pollution. If we under use nutrients, we mine fertility, reduce yields and reduce farm lively hoods. And, conversely, if overused or incorrectly applied, fertilizer nutrients will negatively impact the environment and the community – not to mention the grower’s pocketbook.

There is an existing need to improve the adoption of fertilizer best management practices to enhance the sustainability, efficiency and productivity of agricultural systems.  Efficiency and productivity together are interwoven with sustainability. Striving to improve efficiency without also increasing productivity simply increases the pressure to produce more on other lands which may be less suited to agricultural production. Some might advocate that efficiency increases should be achieved by reducing inputs, but this technique is likely to negatively affect yields over time. Conversely, squandering resources to maximize productivity results in increased environmental impacts and decreased profitability.

Answering the Challenge

To address the need for greater adoption of fertilizer best management practices the fertilizer industry is leading an initiative to educate growers about the value of enhanced efforts aimed at nutrient stewardship.  Through that effort, we are promoting 4R nutrient stewardship as the framework to achieve cropping system goals, like increased production, increased farmer profitability and enhanced environmental protection.

Because of input costs, the need for production to meet growing demands, and environmental impacts the risks for making the wrong nutrient use decisions is greater now than ever.  Luckily, the key factors in growing a good crop happen to be the same as those to reduce negative impacts to the environment. We must accept and address the interconnectivity between practices addressing source, rate, time and place. When your grower customers make a decision about one of the R’s it is affected by the other three. To mitigate the risks, we can’t simply look at only one of the four nutrient stewardship components.

While the scientific practices that govern the 4Rs are universal, the practices to be implemented are site specific, so there is not a common management plan or set of practices that will work for everyone in every location. Crop advisors are key in the efforts to increase adoption of 4R nutrient stewardship with growers.

Engaging with 4Rs

Influenced by a March 2011 EPA memo providing guidance to address non-point source nutrient loss and heightened awareness of hypoxia issues, many states including Minnesota are considering nutrient loss reduction strategies for their states. Through this process, it is essential for non-point source stakeholders (that’s the agriculture community) to engage and provide guidance. Many of the states are interested in pursuing voluntary strategies. However, no matter what the result the outcome will inevitably affect you and your grower customer.

The fertilizer industry and crop farmers are doing a lot to take pride in, yet we are facing a growing segment of society whose distrust of the farm is so great that we have to change some of their perceptions. During my travels last year, I met a retailer who had recently participated in a watershed meeting as a representative from agriculture and the industry. While the strongest environmental activist at the meeting was a representative from the state bee keepers, this retailer found himself under attack for his perceived role in the negative impacts of agriculture.  He struggled to address their concerns at the time, but after hearing about the 4R imitative knew he would have a response in the future. Watershed meetings that will affect agriculture are taking place at the local level around the country, but representation from agriculture or the fertilizer industry is either scant or non-existent.

The 4Rs are tangible and succinct enough for implementation on the farm and also for interaction with the public and policy advocates. There is a rapidly growing body of information and materials available for your use on the 4Rs at www.nutrientstewardship.com .  From the site you will find a multi-faceted focus on the importance of meeting environmental; economic and social sustainability goals. TFI encourages you to take a look at best management practices (BMP) fact sheets as well as other resources to help farmers sustainably use fertilizers.  In many cases you will find that your customers are implementing the 4R’s and are just not recognizing it as such or you might find that one, two or three of the 4R’s are being implemented and with some encouragement all components of the system can easily become a part of farm management plans.

Be an advocate for the 4Rs and help promote a sustainable agricultural system. In the end, it is very much up to you to utilize your trusted advisor relationship with your customers to ensure that the 4R’s are a part of their farm management plans. When this happens it will be good not only for the environment but also for their bottom lines and the global community that relies on agriculture for a bountiful and nutritious food supply.