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Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of the Norwegian fertiliser company, tells Terry Slavin how new technology allowing smallholder farmers to access agronomic advice on their smartphones will help boost yields without threatening forests
With fertiliser one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, it is not surprising that the CEO of the company that invented fertiliser in 1905 has climate risk at the top of his agenda.
Svein Tore Holsether’s company, Yara International, together with Unilever, helped found the Food and Land Use Coalition, a multi-stakeholder platform that is dedicated to protecting natural resources and ecosystems. The platform, which also includes EAT, the scientists behind the EAT-Lancet report (see Climate concerns help fuel 'impossible' rise in plant-based diets), has a mission to transform agriculture and food systems so that instead of contributing a quarter of greenhouse gases, they absorb more climate-change causing gases than they emit.
In an interview with Ethical Corporation, Holsether acknowledged the industry’s responsibility to decrease its contribution to agricultural emissions, but said there should be greater recognition of the benefits of fertiliser in the debate over the food industry and climate change.
The single most important need for a sustainable food future is boosting the natural resource efficiency of agriculture
“Fertiliser enables a more efficient use of land for the production of food,” he said, citing a Stanford University study that showed agricultural sector emissions would be 4.5 times higher than they are now without chemical fertilisers because of the amount of land that would be deforested if farmers could not restore depleted land.
The recent WRI report Creating a Sustainable Food Future said in order to fully meet expected food demand while avoiding massive additional deforestation, crop and pasture yields must increase at rates even faster than those achieved over the past 50 years, with the widespread use of synthetic fertiliser and scientifically bred seeds. it also said the amount of irrigated area will have to double.
“The single most important need for a sustainable food future is boosting the natural resource efficiency of agriculture, that is, producing more food per hectare, per animal, per kilogram of fertiliser, and per litre of water,” the report said.
Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of Yara International. (Credit: Yara International)
Holsether said fertilisers only put back into the soil what was there in the first place – phosphates and potassium, which are naturally in the ground, and nitrogen, which makes up 78% of the air we breathe.
But he accepted that misuse of fertiliser can lead to big environmental implications.
“If you use fertiliser wrong, you risk it being washed away and getting into water courses. And you risk the emissions from the fertiliser itself going into the air instead of the ground. It’s about applying the right type of fertiliser at the right time, and that is where we’ve invested a lot of money.”
The digital platform aspires to reach 100 million hectares of farmland, close to 7% of all arable land worldwide
N-sensors, which are mounted on tractors, monitor the nitrogen in the air and spread fertiliser accordingly, and soil sampling is used extensively to ensure only needed nutrients are added to the soil. This year the company also announced the European launch of Yaralrix, a tool for precision farming that allows farmers to measure crop nitrogen requirements using their smartphones, something that has traditionally required expensive equipment.
But he said his company’s real strength lies in its 800-strong team of agronomists, who help farmers to understand the specific fertiliser needs of their crops.
Until recently, such advice has only been available to large commercial farmers, but in April, Yara announced a partnership with IBM Services to build what they described as the world's leading digital farming platform. This will combine Yara’s expertise in agronomy with IBM’s expertise in artificial intelligence and data analytics to dispense instant advice to millions of professional and smallholder farmers.
The digital platform aspires to reach 100 million hectares of farmland, close to 7% of all arable land worldwide, with the first services planned for the end of this year.
Holsether spoke to Ethical Corporation ahead of the launch of the IBM partnership, but he is clearly enthusiastic about the potential for digital technology to allow the company to reach 450 million smallholder farmers, particularly in Africa, which lags the world in fertiliser use though 80% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
“A core part of our work is to connect with smallholder farmers and make them more productive,” he said. “In Africa we could help multiply their yields by six to eight times. That’s the difference between producing enough food to sustain themselves, and being able to send their children to school, and build a house.”
The ability to invest in the right input factors is a big challenge in many parts of the world
in 2015 it built a new fertiliser terminal in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and placed warehouses across seven regions, partnering with 58 other organisations in the country to transfer knowledge and make quality fertiliser more accessible.
While the entire continent of Africa only accounts for 5% of the company’s global sales, a tiddler compared with its main markets in Latin America, Holsether says the company sees its main growth opportunities in the developing world.
“I keep saying that at some point Africa will be our biggest market. What that point is, though, I don’t know.”
Sensors are used to ensure the right amount of nitrogen is going into the soil. (Credit: Yara International)
One of the key bottlenecks is access to finance for farmers. “The ability to invest in the right input factors is a big challenge in many parts of the world,” Holsether said, adding: “Countries and investors can do much more to invest in farmers and make them more productive.”
But with the huge potential risks for misuse of fertiliser, including waterway pollution, increased air pollution, acidification of the soil and mineral depletion of the soil, shouldn’t policymakers give priority to encouraging the use of organic fertiliser?
There are many good things about organic farming, but it’s not possible to scale it up to the level that is needed to feed the world
Holsether said both organic and mineral fertilisers are needed: “There are many good things about organic farming, but it’s not possible to scale it up to the level that is needed to feed the world. You can’t exchange mineral fertiliser with organic fertiliser. There just isn’t enough available.”
At the same time, he said, “I’m a big believer in the circular economy and reusing nutrients.”
In January, the company signed an agreement with global resource recovery company Veolia to develop new business models for circular agriculture in Europe, with a focus on recycling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from organic materials and using them in new fertiliser products.
Yara, which uses natural gas as a feedstock, is also working towards making carbon-free fertiliser, and in February signed an agreement with energy company ENGIE to test green hydrogen technology in fertiliser production. The two companies agreed to investigate the feasibility of converting Yara's ammonia plant in Pilbara, Western Australia into one where a significant share of hydrogen will come from renewable energy.
“Climate risk is very high on the agenda [for Yara],” said Holsether. “I think it will drive policy and transparency and demand for the right fertilisers.”
But he added: “When we work at getting solutions, it needs to be holistic, looking at the entire food chain. That’s why I’m optimistic about the Food and Land Use Coalition, because it is scientific and takes a holistic view, down to [the contribution] of diets and consumers.”
He said emphasising the company’s role in helping to avoid deforestation “is an area that is smart for us to focus on as a company. If you can produce more on existing land there’s no need to cut down forests. It’s right for us to do this for both the top and bottom line.”
Terry Slavin is editor of Ethical Corporation magazine.
This article is part of the in-depth briefing Climate-smart agriculture. See also: