Recent data compiled by the Earth Policy Institute shows that many countries, including the United States and Japan, have reached a state of diminishing returns regarding the use of artificial fertilizers.
Artificial fertilizer can allow farmers to replace lost soil nutrients and maintain land productivity in regions where the nutrient cycle is no longer completed through a return of human and animal waste to the land, as happens in many rural settings. The uptick in fertilizer use led to a huge jump in worldwide food production during the Green Revolution of the 1960’s, whereas food production increases in the past were almost always tied to an expansion of areas used for cultivation.
Between 1950 and 1988, global fertilizer use increased from 14 million to 144 million tons. China, India, and the United States account for more than fifty percent of global fertilizer consumption today. Within these countries, however, trends in fertilizer use vary. Fertilizer use in the United States leveled off in the 1980’s, in China leveled off in 2007, and continues to rise five percent each year in India. Fertilizer use has decreased in recent years among many developed countries, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan.
Overall annual fertilizer use is 20 million tons in the United States, 28 million tons in India, and 50 million tons in China. The United States is far more efficient than China in its use of fertilizer, but both countries are known for over-applying fertilizer products and contributing to environmental problems, many of which are related to run-off. In the United States, for example, runoff from farms in the Corn Belt has played a role in contributing to a large region in the Gulf of Mexico where sea life cannot exist because oxygen levels are so low.
According to the Earth Policy Institute, both China and the United States could decrease fertilizer use while still maintaining or even increasing crop yields. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have achieved success in this area, using forty to fifty percent less fertilizer as in the 1980’s, all while maintaining high yields.
While there exists potential for expanded fertilizer use in some regions of the world, Earth Policy Institute points out that increased fertilizer application has little to no effect on increasing yields in most countries at this point in time.