by Aiste Baronaite-Lund, Vultus, Sweden
Farmers around the world are using different organic or synthetic fertilisers in hopes to boost a healthy growth of their crops and, in turn, produce higher quality plants. However, the fertilisation process can be trickier than it seems. The misuse of fertilisers can cause the irrepearable damage or even death of some crops and create severe problems on a much larger scale.
So what, in fact, are fertilisers? Well, fertiliser is a substance, that is used to provide plants with valuable nutrients. If used properly fertilisers can help farmers achieve the optimal health of the plant and increase the vegetation of their soils. However, the lack of tools and knowledge of how to properly fertilise the crops is common, and very problematic. When used in excess, these fertilisers can cause tremendous damage to the yield, the environment around us and even our health.
The problem affects us all
Many farmers are simply not properly equipped to precisely measure their crops health and, as such, they cannot exactly know how much of the nutrients their plants need. Therefore, they end up guesstimating the dosage of the critical input of the fertilisers and spreading them evenly across the fields. This practice typically results in the drastic misuse of the fertilisers, because the nutritious needs of the plants within those fields can vary significantly.
This unbalanced nutrient dosage can severely damage or even kill the plants, as the excess amount of the fertilisers makes it very hard for the plants to absorb water. As a result, farmers often find that the crop quality within their fields is highly uneven, which in turn, makes it very difficult to harvest and ensure high quality of a product to a final consumer – all of us.
Due to a lack of knowledge of how much nourishment different plants may need, over 60 percent of nitrogen fertiliser goes to waste. This waste leads to a yield loss of approximately five percent. However, it also creates bigger problems, which affect populations all around the world at a much larger scale. Over-fertilisation significantly contributes to environmental degradation, increases various risks for animal and human health and creates enormous costs not just for the individual farmers, but also nations worldwide.
Farmers are, of course, aware of these issues. Although, existing methods that would enable them to adopt precision farming practices typically require them to spend extensive amounts of money and time, because in this case, farmers need to scout their fields manually.
Dangers of over-fertilisation
The damage that over-fertilisation causes is not limited just to the farmers" fields – far from it. The misuse of these substances can have a major negative environmental impact. Nitrogen waste is especially dangerous for aquatic life.
"When nitrogen, which is the primary agent in fertilisers, is not utilised by the plants, it either becomes the extremely potent greenhouse gas or eventually runs out into the larger environment, often times polluting our rivers and lakes"- William Håkansson, co-founder of Vultus.
A large amount of nitrogen waste ends up in the water-bodies, causing a host of tremendously harmful issues. Nitrogen waste fills the water with nutrient salts, which in turn, causes structural changes to the ecosystems of our rivers and lakes. Over-fertilisation also increases the production of toxic algae blooms, causes a rapid depletion of fish species and decreases the quality of water. It also significantly contributes to the acidification of water, which is one of the biggest environmental issues that our planet faces today.
Furthermore, this nitrogen waste is causing a huge emission of Nitrous Oxide – a greenhouse gas that is 298 times more potent than CO2 itself. For example, at the moment, seven percent of Sweden"s total CO2 emission is from Nitrous Oxide, which comes directly from the agriculture industry.
These facts can indeed look quite daunting, however, the vast majority of this pollution can be avoided, since so much of it is due to the inefficient practices of farming and the imprecise application of nitrogen fertilisers.
Satellite solution to healthier farming
In the context of constant climatic changes around the world, and overall damage that agriculture industry causes to the environment, green farming becomes increasingly more important. Therefore, the problem of over-fertilisation has become a center of many scientists" and companies" attention. Many of them are willing to invest in new technologies and find ways to improve their agriculture practices. Scientists suggest that the solution to over-fertilisation lies in precision agriculture processes, more particularly – satellite nitrogen prescriptions.
One of the recent technologies particularly designed to combat the over-use of nitrogen fertilisation involves sophisticated satellite systems, which take pictures of the fields from space. Then these satellite images are divided into smaller units, which allow scientists to look into spectral signatures of different plants and precisely measure each of their nutrient needs. Then farmers are provided with actionable and simple-to-follow recommendations of how to most efficiently fertilise their fields. The satellite technology is estimated to reduce up to 40 percent of nitrogen fertilisers usage and, as such, helps minimise all of the major problems that over-fertilisation causes.
Nitrogen prescriptions to reduce cost
Even though such a high-tech satellite-based technology is rather complicated, it is not pricey at all. As a matter of fact, it actually ends up saving farmers quite a significant amount of money. For example, Vultus, a Swedish company offering such nitrogen prescriptions, provides farmers with the plant analysis, including qualitative satellite images and quantitative fertiliser prescriptions, as a seasonal subscription, for €5 per hectare per year.
As these up-to-date satellite recommendations can cut up to half of the fertilisers usage, for a medium-sized farmer, who works in a field of 250 hectares, the system would save approximately €15,000 per year.
So, these precise and up-to-date nitrogen prescriptions can enable farmers to increase their yield quality, whilst quite significantly decreasing costs of fertilisers and harvesting issues.
The future of agriculture is green
Over-fertilisation is one of the most prevalent problems that so many farmers around the world face. However, preventing this issue does so much more than just help farmers produce healthier plants. The new technologies, like satellite-based nitrogen prescriptions, can help us find a better way to feed the world, and help our planet heal from the damage, that has been already done by the agriculture industry.
"The technology is there. So, for now, the most important thing is that the farmers would recognise the value that these satellite systems bring to their operations and would be willing to adopt the modern, greener and better way of farming" – Robert Schmitt, CEO of Vultus.