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What Is Fertilizer?

Fertilizers are food for plants. Fertilizer helps farmers feed our growing population.

Overview

Plants require 17 essential nutrients in the soil to survive and to grow. Fertilizers help replenish these nutrients after each harvest.

Nitrogenphosphatepotassium and sulphur, are the four most important nutrients for high crop yields and sustainable food production:

Nitrogen (N) makes up about 78 percent of the air we breathe. It is inert and insoluble in this form meaning plants can not use it.

Nitrogen (N) makes up about 78 percent of the air we breathe. It is inert and insoluble in this form meaning plants can not use it. To manufacture nitrogen fertilizer, it must be removed from the air and combined with hydrogen to make ammonia. Ammonia is used in two ways: it is applied directly to crops as a nitrogen fertilizer, or it is used as a building block to make other nitrogen fertilizer products. Different nitrogen products have different properties and levels of nitrogen that can be used in various climates and cropping patterns found around the world.

Phosphorus (P) is present in all living cells and is essential to all forms of life.

Phosphorus (P) is present in all living cells and is essential to all forms of life. Found throughout our bodies, it is concentrated in our teeth and bones. The source of phosphorus in fertilizer is phosphate rock, which is typically mined from the earth’s crust then reacted with different kinds of acids to produce different phosphate products. The largest deposits occur in the United States, North Africa, and China.

Potassium (K) is also found throughout nature and is found in our bodies in muscles, skin, and the digestive tract.

Potassium (K) is also found throughout nature and is found in our bodies in muscles, skin, and the digestive tract. Good health requires sufficient intake of potassium, and plants get it from potash fertilizers. Plants use potassium for functions like photosynthesis, protein formation, and water use. Potassium, or potash, is mined from naturally occurring ore bodies that were formed as seawater evaporated. The deposits are a mixture of crystals of potassium chloride and sodium chloride, also known as table salt. After it is mined, the potassium chloride is separated from the mixture and results in a granular fertilizer. Most of the world’s potash deposits are found in Canada, Russia, Belarus, Germany, and the United States.

Sulphur (S) is essential for the production of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins found in all living things.

Sulphur (S) is essential for the production of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins found in all living things. Sulphur also helps give crops like onion, mustard and radishes their characteristic colour. While it can be found naturally in the soil, it is not always in a form plants can use.

How Fertilizers Work

Fertilizers are food for plants. Just as we need an adequate and consistent diet to grow and stay healthy, plants and crops have to get proper nutrition from the soil to thrive.

Plants require a balanced supply of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulphur. As plants extract these nutrients from the soil during every growing season, they must be replenished through fertilizers, manure, and compost added to fields or gardens annually.

The advantage of using fertilizers is they can be applied with more control to match crop needs and protect the environment. They can also supplement manure or compost to ensure the soil gets an adequate supply of nutrients. Fertilizer Canada emphasizes the importance of managing and balancing the supply of nutrients to prevent both over and under fertilization.

Why the Fertilizer Industry Matters to Canada

Fertilizers are a key ingredient used by farmers in the production of our food. The companies that make fertilizers are a major part of the Canadian manufacturing sector, and play an important role in the Canadian economy. The industry actively promotes responsible use of its products and supports efforts to maintain environmental stewardship.

Resourceful

  • Fertilizer manufactures produce about 24 million tonnes of nitrogen, potash, phosphate and sulphur fertilizers annually in some of the most technologically advanced and safest facilities in the world. The industry’s economic activities contribute $23 billion annually to the Canadian economy, with domestic farm gate sales valued at about $4.2 billion a year. Canada exports fertilizer materials to more than 75 countries, and 95 percent of our potash is exported.
  • Over 76,000 people in Canada are employed directly by fertilizer companies in highly paid and highly skilled jobs such as engineers, scientists, and tradespeople working in mines, production plants, laboratories, and farm supply outlets. Many more jobs exist in related supply and service industries, such as transport and food processing. Fertilizer is the third highest volume commodity shipped by Canadian railways.

Sustainable

  • Over the last 40 years, farmland has been lost to the expansion of our cities and towns. Fertilizers allow us to produce more on our existing farmland.
  • By 2050, the world will need to increase food production by 70 percent. Without fertilizer, global food production would be half of current levels, requiring farmers to grow more food on less land. Fertilizer helps to keep soils around the world productive to supply enough food for the growing population.

Environmental

  • Fertilizer is essential to sustainable crop production, for food and renewable fuels to feeding the world’s increasing population.
  • Canada’s fertilizer manufacturing sector is among the most efficient in the world. In the last twenty years, the industry has achieved significant reduction in emission levels, while total production has increased.
  • The industry also helps farmers reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while achieving the maximum economic yield from their fields. Applying nitrogen fertilizers correctly reduces the amount of nitrous oxide emissions into the atmosphere.

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