Data is from Figure 1 in Terry Robert’s paper “The Role of Fertilizer in
Growing the World’s Food” on pages 12-15, Better Crops with Plant Food,
2009 No. 2. Go to www.ipni.netto access this good little magazine.
SOILS AND CROPS
The most recent issue of “Better Crops with Plant Food” had an interesting article by Terry Roberts on the relationship between fertilizer use and food production on a global basis. Roberts is president of the International Plant Nutrient Institute. He was raised in southern Alberta and his family was in the soil testing business. He took his PhD at the University of Saskatchewan.
IPNI is a fertilizer industry group but has always operated with a strong science base. Staff are all well-trained soil and crop scientists.
Roberts’ message was simple: One third to one half of all cereal crop production is due to the fertilizer used by the farmer. The period of serious fertilizer use started around 1960 — the exact time this old scribe jumped off the old Cockshutt 132 combine and headed to the U of S to take agriculture. So I have seen most of the growth in the fertilizer industry.
In 1960, fertilizer use in Saskatchewan was only 35,000 tons of total product. It grew quickly to 268,000 tons by 1968, but dropped like a stone in 1970. Kids like our illustrious Grainews editor will not remember the LIFT year — 1970 — when the government paid farmers to summerfallow two years in a row to lower the inventory of grain. In September 1970, I addressed the then Western Canada Fertilizer Association in Winnipeg and was assigned the task of predicting Saskatchewan fertilizer sales to 1975. I said farmers had a taste of what nitrogen could do and that as soon as markets improved they would be back in spades. I predicted a five-fold increase in five years. There was polite applause and much snickering in the hallways that day, but in five years it turned out my predictions were low.
The Saskatchewan market alone is now about 500,000 tonnes of actual nitrogen per year and about 200,000 tonnes of actual phosphate per year.
Which brings me to the real reason for this article. It is without doubt that our farming depends heavily on an affordable source of N fertilizer. In the Prairie region — especially Saskatchewan and Alberta — we sit on large reserves of natural gas that are now in surplus. Hence the resource is cheap. Why are farm groups not working on securing those gas reserves to make sure we have affordable N in the future?
How? I am not sure and I am not much of a socialist, but common sense tells me we should not leave it all to the whims of others and entirely to the global market. Decades ago Westco was formed to do precisely what I am now suggesting. Is it time to revitalize that idea in some form to insure Western Canadian farmers have an affordable source of Nforthefuture?
J. L. (Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms near Dundurn, Sask.