Global, aggregate (mineral) fertilizer demand is expected to reach 200 million metric tonnes of nutrients per year at the end of the decade2, which represents a ten-fold increase since 1950, when some 20 million nutrient tons were applied.3 This is proof of the world’s farmers’ desire to ensure and increase their agricultural productivity by providing nutrients to their crops, and stave off nutrient depletion in their soils. At the same time, this increase in consumption signals the need for ever more efficient fertilizer application, in particular since most of the fertilizer demand expansion since 1950 has been driven by nitrogen fertilizers, with underuse in many regions of phosphate and potash fertilizers raising concerns in some geographical areas of unbalanced nutrition. The Green Revolution of the 1970s provided a big boost to agricultural yields, primarily due to improved seed varieties and increased fertilizer use. Ongoing productivity gains are required in order to feed the world’s burgeoning population. It is equally, if not more, important to ensure that the Green Revolution finally spreads to regions of the world that have not yet benefitted from its impact, if we are to successfully provide food security to a population of over 9 billion in 2050. However, an exclusive focus on productivity advances is clearly no longer sufficient. A new green revolution requires that productivity advances go hand in hand with a more efficient use of both natural resources, such as water and land, and agricultural inputs. “Responsible fertilization” requires that fertilizers be applied in a more efficient and effective way so as to maximize nutrient uptake by plants in the objective of bridging the yield gap4 and staving off nutrient losses to the soil, water and air.
This paper will provide a brief overview of plant nutrients and their contribution to food security, outline how nutrients can be lost to the environment, and then put forth key elements of “responsible” plant nutrition. The final section of the paper will address both the challenges and opportunities in advancing such responsible plant nutrition.