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The links between the laboratory and the ground workers will be critical. The future of agriculture depends on them, and our subsistence on it.
Phosphorus, an essential nutrient for crop growth, may have been the first element to be discovered chemically, but it is one of the most difficult to trace. This is especially true when it comes to nutrient management on farms.
Deficiencies in plants are difficult to detect, and the phosphorus cycle through soil and watersheds is a delicate balance susceptible to human influence, while losses to the environment are under increasing scrutiny.
Scientists have made great strides in understanding phosphorus in the laboratory, and in recent years, we have made significant progress in helping farmers in the field better understand how to cost-effectively use phosphorus fertilizer to address and avoid losses.
But a wider dissemination of this knowledge in agriculture is vital to ensure the sustainable use of phosphate fertilizers to help farmers meet the challenge of food production.
We know that phosphorous deposits are finite, so it is important that we conserve and recycle phosphorus for future generations. Ensuring that tools and technologies developed across the fertilizer sector are available to farmers to help them achieve their productivity goals and minimize the environmental footprint is also paramount.
I have been very fortunate to have worked with and benefited from many scientists with different backgrounds throughout my career, which has helped broaden the impact of our research. When we can translate and share this with those in need, like farmers, the impact can be far reaching.
One such example is the development of the P Index, a tool that helps farmers identify which areas of their farm are most susceptible to loss of phosphorus nutrients. Using the P index is helping to reduce the amount of phosphorus lost to the environment in the US, an estimated 25,000 tons.
The success of the P-Index is demonstrated by the fact that in 49 states, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NCRS) has adopted it as the cornerstone of nutrient management planning in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO. This approach is also used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cost-effectively prioritize and focus on conservation measures in the United States.
Another example of applied nutrient management studies is the Arkansas Discovery Farm Program research and demonstration.
At the 12 agricultural farms, researchers are evaluating how to minimize the potential movement of nutrients from soil to water to protect the soil and reduce nutrient runoff. This includes evaluating the effectiveness of conservation methods, such as reduced tillage and cover crops, along with best nutrient management practices.
The results of the program so far have shown that less than five to three percent of applied nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers are lost on average to surface runoff on average. Computerized planning tools have also helped improve irrigation water management, reducing irrigation runoff to less than 10 percent of current common losses and saving one of the most precious commodities for many farmers.
Initial results of the program have already provided farmers with evidence and confidence that they are providing safe and affordable food supplies, while protecting natural resources for future generations. Seeing the practices in action has also empowered them to further improve their nutrient management and water conservation.
Most importantly, these experiential learning programs show farmers what works, provide them with a powerful vehicle to influence future agricultural policy, and enable them to proactively invest in food and environmental security.
Finally, 4R Nutrient Stewardship is a fertilizer industry-led ground lab initiative that promotes efficient fertilizer use. The initiative encourages farmers to apply the "right" nutrient source, at the "right" rate, at the "right" time and in the "right" place.
When used with other conservation measures, it can improve the health of soils used for agriculture, as well as improve crop yields and reduce water losses. The 4R Plus project in Iowa, for example, is designed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses to water by at least 45 percent.
Supporting scientific research on nutrient cycle management and its transfer to farmers is key to enabling more sustainable agriculture. Improvements in nutrient and soil management not only give farmers an economic boost, by allowing them to grow more crops with fewer inputs, but also strengthen food security and environmental sustainability for all of us.