A Fertile Market
Around the world demand for fertiliser is on the rise. This is driven not just by population growth but also changes in diet: more consumption of meat requires more feed, which in turn requires more fertiliser. While South Africa broadly follows this trend, the country also handles a large portion of the burgeoning amount of fertiliser needed by the SADC region.
At the same time, says Lowell Scarr, owner and managing director of organic fertiliser company Nambu, the country is seeing increased planting of crops like cotton and soya in areas where production had previously ceased due to unfavourable production and market conditions. “Additional fertilisers are being purchased to supply this need,” he explains.
This is taking place at a time when fertiliser stocks the world over have been compromised by shutdowns and logistics challenges flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing prices upward. Moreover, some ingredient-producing countries such as Iran and Belarus have had sanctions placed against them, further reducing supply.
South Africa’s supply
What does this mean for South Africa? At present, production is centred around Gauteng, eThekwini and the Cape Metro, with Kynoch, Omnia, Haifa, Yara and Foskor dominating the sector.
However, the majority of South Africa’s fertiliser needs are addressed through imports. This is because although the country is able to produce some of the required ingredients, the vast majority – including urea, potassium and phosphate – need to be accessed abroad. Because of this, we’re forced to buy at higher prices and sell on, using the higher import costs as a base. This means that higher prices are passed on to farmers.
“The relatively small size of South Africa’s agricultural sector means that we’ve had little fertiliser production infrastructure in place, while the high cost of developing new production plants serves to discourage local investment,” adds Scarr. Other factors, such as political instability and the availability of raw materials, have also played a role, with the result that South Africa typically imports fertilisers, “resulting in a high share of logistics costs as part of the overall retail price”.
At present this situation seems unlikely to change, says Scarr, as production plants are expensive to build and take several years to commission.
The what and the how
Fertiliser is typically classified as either inorganic or organic. Inorganic fertilisers are synthetically produced, and tend to be more rapid acting. Organic fertilisers are fertilisers found in a natural state, such as manure. Although more slow acting, Scarr says that with long-term use they contribute to sound soil biology and resilience.
So which should farmers choose? Both have advantages and disadvantages. Although the use of inorganic fertilisers has been contested, recent research published in Sage Journals overturned the notion that these are an inferior, imbalanced source of nutrients, indicating that advanced formulations mean inorganic fertilisers can be adjusted to suit all plant needs.
That’s as organic fertilisers have been shown to make a significant contribution to soil health.
According to Scarr, South Africa is largely dependent on rapid-acting inorganic fertiliser. Although he argues that green ammonia – which releases less carbon dioxide during the production process – would improve sustainability, other industry players maintain that green ammonia is not able to meet current market needs, and is therefore not a viable option. Fertiliser also has a key role to play in sustainability: applying the right amount of fertiliser in the right place at the right time and in the right form not only improves yield, but can also reduce input costs and limit the negative effects of over-applying. The key lies in obtaining sound agronomic advice, which may also reveal whether a nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium fertiliser is best suited to the farmer’s needs.