Farming is hard work.

Ask Rachael Sharp in South Carolina, a third-generation farmer who grows a variety of soybeans, wheat, cotton and peanuts.

Last year, she saw fertiliser prices soar by 320% – the highest rise her or her father can recall.

Ms Sharp claims that some farmers don’t plant anything because of the high costs.

In the midst of extreme weather and transport disruptions, fertiliser prices have broken records around the globe.

Russia is a country that is under Western sanctions. It produces large quantities key chemicals for the production of fertilizers. It supplies a large amount of natural gas needed to make ammonia, a key component of nitrogen fertilisers.

Other countries are becoming more aware of Russia’s dependence on fertiliser because of the conflict. The US government responded by investing in new fertilisers made domestically, but it will take some time before those investments pay off.

Farmers are having to adapt their planting strategies due to rising prices. These rising prices are also driving demand for alternative fertilisers.

This is something environmentalists have long called for. Traditional fertilisers are energy-intensive and can result in large carbon dioxide (CO2) emission.

However, nitrogen fertilisers also have a second side effect. They can also cause nitrous oxide to be produced, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.

A simple way to reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers is to do so in a cost-effective manner.

Overuse of fertilizers is a serious problem. Globally, crops consume only 35% and 56% respectively of the nitrogen and phosphorous that they receive; the rest settles in the soil.

Of course, this can vary widely. Low-income farmers might struggle with too little fertilizer, but not enough.

However, overall, fertiliser is being used in a greater quantity than necessary to increase costs and reduce environmental impact.

“Overuse” is a problem in our field, says Bhupinder Farmaha (a nutrient management specialist at Clemson in the US) and an agricultural extension agent who works alongside farmers such as Ms Sharp.

Overuse can be attributed to both tradition and outdated recommendations for fertilizer application that do not consider specific environmental conditions.

Sri Lanka found a radical solution: The government banned chemical fertilisers abruptly in April 2021.

Chemical fertilisers were added to the soil in sub-substances that increased their yields, but also caused dependence and inefficient applications.

The ban had devastating effects. The ban had devastating effects on farmers who depended upon chemical fertilisers. They were forced to search for organic options immediately, and they had little time to prepare.

Organic fertilisers were not widely used in Sri Lanka, and were scarce in any case.

The ban was lifted in November 2021 but the shocks are still felt by the economy and agriculture of Sri Lanka.

Technology for business:

Saman Dharmakeerthi is the head of the Department of Soil Science at Sri Lanka University of Peradeniya. He believes that “the take-home message” is that “if you want something done, use statistics and research evidence to support it.”

You can use technology to reduce fertiliser usage in a more controlled way.

The use of infrared light to determine the pH and nutrient levels of soil samples can help you target fertiliser applications.

A more precise application, such as fertilizer microdosing, can help reduce the amount of fertiliser needed. Slow-release fertilisers can also be reduced.

Ms. Sharp is open to new technologies. She explains that not every field requires the same prescription. “I believe that’s where Daddy is different from me. He used to put out the same amount as his parents because that’s how they did it for many years.

You can also reduce chemical fertilizers by using farming methods that improve soil quality.

Conservation tillage is when the soil is not disturbed at all. Cover crops such as ryegrass can increase fertility and reduce the climate impact of agriculture.

Crop rotation can also contribute to soil health. Ms Sharp stated that her farm plans its crop rotation so that the crop she’s planning to plant uses nutrients from the previous crop.

Organic fertilisers are also seeing renewed interest.

Leigh Ann Winowiecki is a soil scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF, Nairobi, Kenya. She says that farmyard manure can have a variety of benefits, including providing nutrients for plants, improving soil structure and increasing soil’s ability hold water.

Ms Winowiecki reports that research also shows that compost and composted farmer manure can increase the effectiveness of synthetic fertilizers.

She believes it would be feasible in eastern Kenya, where most farmers have at least one cow close to their homestead.

Although compost and manure are effective soil additives, Dr Dharmakeerthi isn’t sure if they can replace nitrogen-based fertilisers entirely, as they have lower levels of vital nutrients.

It will be difficult to get rid of the current dependence on high-yielding chemical fertilizers, especially to produce enough animal feed to meet the increasing global demand for meat.

Another problem is the lack of organic fertilizers. Ms Sharp says that chicken litter, which is a good fertiliser, has been difficult to find this year. Prices were approximately 200% higher this year than last year, where it was possible to find it.

It smells terrible. Ms Sharp says that it is hated by the people of town because it smells like high heaven.

Algae is a different type of beneficial organism. It has been used for centuries to improve crops. Ficosterra, a marine biotech company, is trying to revive this tradition and is currently testing algae-based fertilizers made in Spain and Mexico.

It also extracts nutrients form a seaweed called Macrocystis Piryfera. This seaweed grows in dense forests along America’s Pacific coast and is sold as fertiliser.

Dr Dharmakeerthi, for his part, sees great potential within organic waste such as fermented fish wastewater. He says, “That’s the best option.”

He says that the challenge lies in developing technologies to extract nutrients at a low cost.

The current fertiliser crisis has brought out a positive side effect: soaring demand for environmentally friendly fertilisers that are widely available. Dr Dharmakeerthi predicts that there will be a huge research boom because of the scarcity.

Ms Sharp is now in South Carolina and has used the waste ash from a local paper mill. She only had to pay transport costs.

Ms Sharp reported that it actually altered the pH to our favor by around a percent. Although it won’t replace a potash or chicken litter, it will take the edge off the prices.