14 December 2021

Soil tests revive as fertilizer prices skyrocket


Fertilizer costs at their highest peak in 12 years. Here is the chance to focus on preliminary soil analysis, a crucial tool to limit excessive and inefficient use of additives

by Matteo Cavallito


Fertilizer overuse has been in experts’ sights. The application of chemicals to the soil, in fact, may boost crop yields, but the environmental costs are huge. From the loss of nutrients in the environment to the contamination of water resources and impacts on human health, the list of risks imposes continuous analyses. At the same time, it suggests the search for a new balance based on a more moderate use of chemicals. This can be achieved by conducting special tests on soil characteristics. In this way, we can get crucial information to avoid waste and wrong choices.

The nutrient requirements of the soil vary from year to year depending on many factors. Ignoring this aspect can mean overusing fertilizers, incurring unnecessary costs and damaging the environment. It is not only theory, however, to suggest the opportunity of preliminary testing. Today, in fact, the agricultural sector is facing a new and powerful underlying incentive: market.

Fertilizer costs at their 12 year high

“If there ever was a time in the last 30 years to soil test, this is it,” said Brad Brummond, extension agent at North Dakota State University, citing skyrocketing prices at global level that are making cost-saving strategies increasingly attractive.

“Surging natural gas prices in Europe resulted in widespread production cutbacks in ammonia—an important input for nitrogen fertilizers—while escalating thermal coal prices in China led to a rationing of electricity use in some provinces and forced fertilizer factories to cut production,” the World Bank said.

China has also “has announced the suspension of fertilizer exports until June 2022 to ensure domestic availability amid food security concerns.” As a consequence, prices of some key fertilizers such as urea and diammonium phosphate have reached their highest levels since 2009, when the global financial crisis hit the economy and markets.

Soil testing is crucial

"What is the best investment when fertilizer prices are high, a recent, reliable soil test!" said Greg LaBarge, extension agent at Ohio State University. In fact, to optimize - and limit - fertilizer use, soil testing is crucial. "The first thing to look at on your soil test reports is pH", e says. "Soil pH is the critical factor in nutrient availability. If soil pH is less than 6.0, consider liming before making any fertilizer application. When soil pH values are acidic, investing in lime will make more soil stored phosphorus and potassium plant available. Correct soil pH will make other parts of your fertility program more efficient. Spend your fertilizer dollars on lime first." Currently available guidelines offer appropriate guidance on reference values for each crop and methods for collecting soil samples.

Pesticidi e fertilizzanti: un mercato da 300 miliardi di dollari

FAO had already intervened on fertilizers in 2019 developing a Code for Sustainable Land Management. The U.N. organization, in particular, strongly emphasizes the management of nutrients based on the so-called 4R Nutrient Stewardship: right source of nutrients at the right time, in the right place and in the right quantity according to soil and crop features.

The ultimate goal is to strengthen global food production and security without harming soil fertility and ecosystems. According to a recent report by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in cooperation with FAO and WHO, "Global demand, production and use of pesticides and fertilizers have expanded steadily during the past decades. Combined global sales continue to grow at about 4.1% per year and are projected to reach $309 billion by 2025.”