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SDG 15: A case for environmental friendly fertilizers

A farmer applies fertilizer when soil fertility is low. In the same way, fields are irrigated when there is low soil moisture.

These are examples of reductionist approach, where each issue that develops is viewed as an individual problem and it requires to be addressed in isolation from all others.

A conventional farming system promotes such reductionist approach by creating negative environmental and social effects. Many scientists argue that a decline in soil fertility resulting from mono-cropping, degraded soils and other factors ought to use soil amendments including chemical and/or inorganic fertilizers.

Many materials can be applied to soil as sources of plant nutrients, but chemical fertilizers are the most efficient sources due to the relatively homogenous compounds of fixed and known composition. Chemical fertilizers are being marketed as one the key drivers for spurring the agricultural boom globally. For example, Nitrogen fertilizers have displaced the traditional techniques farmers used to increase soil fertility like cover cropping and livestock manure.

Brazil, China, India and the United States drive global fertilizer consumption which collectively accounts for around 55 percent of global demand. The problem is that a lot of fertilizer is wasted and crop Nitrogen uptake efficiency is less than 50 percent of the applied fertilizer. The overuse of chemical fertilizers has downside consequences including the leaching of nitrates into the groundwater supply or conversion of Nitrogen to nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas emission via evaporation from soils.

Research: reduce the environmental impacts

An integrated (holistic) approach is needed for minimizing the adverse impacts of agricultural practices in supporting food production, and natural and terrestrial eco­system resilience. Globally, many scientists are focusing to improve Nitrogen use efficiency in crops, either through the concept of 4Rs (right product, right rate, right time, right placement) management program or micro-dosing of fertilizer application or variable rate application technology, etc.

The one in which I have been involved in as a PhD scholar at University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) under the supervision of Dr. Bijesh Maharjan uses the enhancement of soil Nitrogen retention by adding soil amendment such as, char- a local industrial by-product of Western Sugar Cooperative in Nebraska, contains around 30 percent total carbon in addition to many essential plant nutrients. It can be a potential source of soil amendment to enhance soil Nitrogen retention and thereby, minimize environmental Nitrogen losses.

Our laboratory study at UNL examines the magnitude of potential Nitrogen losses from the soil system in form of nitrous oxide emissions, ammonia volatilization or nitrate leaching after the addition of different rates of char. Field study includes impact of char in conjunction with cattle manure and N fertilizer for soil and crop yields that how char affects crop production in fertilized soil and looking forward to determine optimal rate of char for increased soil productivity. Integrating two or more systems can offer an opportunity to optimize use of finite resources such as water, nutrients, and energy and diversify those systems. Environmental benefits of agricultural use of char will be mutually beneficial for both agriculture and industries that produce char. 

SDG 15: sustain life on lands

Globally, land is a precious and limited resource used for many purposes. Today we are seeing unprecedented land degradation, and the loss of arable land at 30 to 35 times the historical rate. We depend on agricultural ecosystems and forests as an essential source of materials, food, product ingredients and also for livelihoods. A projected global food demand for the next 50 years is doubled due to increasing population numbers, and it poses huge challenges for the sustainability both of food production and of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and the services they provide to society. So it is urgent to take significant actions to reduce the degradation of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 is dubbed ‘Life on Lands’ is all about protecting, restoring and promoting the sustainable use of all terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems so that we can have a better future. SDG 15 was created to bring attention to the negative side effects from agricultural and industrial development. Youth therefore can play a supporting role to increase awareness on environmental conservation and promote the agenda of SDG for agricultural sustainability to make sure others are aware about it.

This testimonial by Dinesh Panday is part of YPARD's showcase on young people and the Sustainable Development Goals.