About 75% of fertilizers and fertilizer technology used around the world today were developed or improved during the 1950s to 1970s by scientists and engineers at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the United States, says John Shields, a former TVA official. Shields is now Interim Director of the Research and Market Development Division of IFDC, an International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development, based in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
"An investment of $41 million in fertilizer research through 1981 returned an incredible $57 billion to U.S. agriculture," Shields says. "That doesn't include benefits of the technology to the rest of the world."
But inadequate public funding caused closure of the TVA fertilizer research program in the early 1990s. Today, publicly funded fertilizer research and development has essentially ceased--and so has the flow of new and more efficient fertilizers and fertilizer manufacturing technologies.
Dr. Amit Roy, IFDC President and CEO, says, "TVA's fertilizer program is recognized as one of the most effective research and development programs of any U.S. agency. Its benefits to the world far outweigh the public investment that the United States made in fertilizer research and development.
"It's time to launch a radical initiative to develop a new generation of energy-efficient fertilizers to help avert hunger and famine."
TVA developed high-analysis fertilizers with high nutrient content as well as more efficient manufacturing processes. The fertilizers include urea, diammonium phosphate (DAP), triple superphosphate (TSP), sulfur-coated urea, and liquid fertilizers. TVA improved the manufacturing processes for ammonium nitrate and other products that help commercial producers provide efficient fertilizers to farmers worldwide. TVA's ammonium-granulation and bulk-blending technologies improve the efficiency of the manufacture of many mixed fertilizer grades. TVA generated most of the fluid fertilizer and dry bulk-blending technology used in the United States today.
"TVA technology fueled the sweeping advances of U.S. farmers in food and fiber production in the 60s to 80s," Shields says. "Today, fertilizers are responsible for more than a third of total U.S. crop production.
"The $57 billion return from a $41 million investment included about $49 billion from use of high-analysis fertilizers and $8 billion from process development and improvement. That's a benefit:cost ratio of more than $20 to $1.
"TVA followed promising new fertilizers from conception to production to national acceptance by farmers and the fertilizer industry," Shields recalls. "Its program was based on fundamental research, followed by process development and technology transfer."
After agronomic tests and pilot plant production proved that a new TVA fertilizer product or manufacturing process performed well, TVA produced enough tonnage to introduce it into U.S. agriculture. "TVA then stopped work on that project and moved to develop newer and more promising technologies," Shields says.
Calls for New Fertilizer Research
Dr. Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Laureate, says, "I am concerned about the state of the fertilizer industry itself. With the price of energy increasing, we need to find cheaper, more effective ways to nourish food crops. The price tag for increasing productivity in Africa will be quite high. The fertilizer industry needs to do everything in its power to minimize that cost. Farmers are paying way too much for fertilizer products because we are transporting millions of tons of material that is not nutrient and because much of the nutrients in applied fertilizers are never used by the crop. Nutrient losses to the environment are high with consequences for global warming and water pollution.
"Work should begin now on the next generation of fertilizer products using advanced techniques such as nanotechnology and molecular biology, especially in conjunction with plant genetics research. 'Smart' fertilizer products that will release nutrients only at the time and in the amount needed should be developed." Borlaug served on the IFDC Board of Directors from 1994 to 2003.
"The world needs a major research effort to improve the effectiveness of fertilizer production and use," says Peter McPherson, President of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) and current Chairman of the IFDC Board. "Fertilizer is a commodity industry and it is unlikely the industry alone will undertake the research. Some public investment is probably required."
During the U.N. Food Summit in June 2008 in Rome, more than 180 world leaders addressed the food crisis and stressed the urgent need "to decisively step up investment in science and technology for food and agriculture."
"The need for increased food is escalating, but new agricultural technology is not keeping pace," Roy says. "An effective research program to develop a new range of fertilizers should be a key element of any long-term strategy to alleviate the food crisis.
"Most fertilizer products used today were developed when energy seemed abundant and cheap. But with rising prices we should develop a new generation of fertilizer products that use plant nutrients more efficiently.
"Such innovations will require investments in research--but such costs would be miniscule compared to the benefits for humanity," Roy says.
"IFDC is in a unique position to meet this challenge. We're the world's only agency with the necessary facilities and expertise. We have both the physical and human resources to do the job. IFDC has a complex of six pilot plants for research and training in fertilizer development and production plus a highly qualified team of scientists and engineers. We also have the international contacts to build support for a new, vigorous fertilizer research and development program.
"We can pick up where TVA had to cease."