A fertilizer (American English) or fertiliser (British English; see spelling differences) is any material of natural or synthetic origin that is applied to soil or to plant tissues to supply plant nutrients. Fertilizers may be distinct from liming materials or other non-nutrient soil amendments. Many sources of fertilizer exist, both natural and industrially produced. For most modern agricultural practices, fertilization focuses on three main macro nutrients: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) with occasional addition of supplements like rock dust for micronutrients. Farmers apply these fertilizers in a variety of ways: through dry or pelletized or liquid application processes, using large agricultural equipment or hand-tool methods.
Historically fertilization came from natural or organic sources: compost, animal manure, human manure, harvested minerals, crop rotations and byproducts of human-nature industries (i.e. fish processing waste, or bloodmeal from animal slaughter). However, starting in the 19th century, after innovations in plant nutrition, an agricultural industry developed around synthetically created fertilizers. This transition was important in transforming the global food system, allowing for larger-scale industrial agriculture with large crop yields. In particular nitrogen-fixing chemical processes such as the Haber process at the beginning of the 20th century, amplified by production capacity created during World War II led to a boom in using nitrogen fertilizers. In the later half of the 20th century, increased use of nitrogen fertilizers (800% increase between 1961 and 2019) have been a crucial component of the increased productivity of conventional food systems (more than 30% per capita) as part of the so-called “Green Revolution”.Synthetic fertilizer used in agriculture has wide-reaching environmental consequences. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land, production of these fertilizers and associated land use practices are key drivers of global warming. The use of fertilizer has also led to a number of direct environmental consequences: agricultural runoff which leads to downstream effects like ocean dead zones and waterway contamination, soil microbiome degradation, and accumulation of toxins in ecosystems. Indirect environmental impacts include: the environmental impacts of fracking for natural gas used in the Haber process, the agricultural boom is partially responsible for the rapid growth in human population and large-scale industrial agricultural practices are associated with habitat destruction, pressure on biodiversity and agricultural soil loss.
In order to mitigate environmental and food security concerns, the international community has included food systems in Sustainable Development Goal 2 which focuses on creating a climate-friendly and sustainable food production system. Most policy and regulatory approaches to address these issues focus on pivoting agricultural practices towards sustainable or regenerative agricultural practices: these use less synthetic fertilizers, better soil management (for example no-till agriculture) and more organic fertilizers.
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