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Improved corn industry fertilizer efficiency could generate billions

What’s better than reducing pollution while saving money? Your answer should be an enthusiastic “nothing!” – and if you’re lucky enough to be a farmer, you may soon get the chance to experience this in person.

A new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability reports that if fertilizer production adopts similar benchmarks to the fuel-efficiency standards used in the auto industry, the production of fertilizer could produce $5-8 billion in economic benefits for the U.S. corn sector alone.

Researchers David Kanter of New York University and Tim Searchinger of Princeton University examined the potential impact of a policy to reduce nitrogen emissions in fertilizer. This policy would be modeled after the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that have been implemented to increase automobile fuel efficiency in the U.S.

A CAFE-style approach to reducing nitrogen pollution could provide powerful incentives for fertilizer manufacturers to learn where and how enhanced-efficiency fertilizers work best, and ultimately to develop more technically sophisticated nitrogen products tailored to specific crops, climates, and soil conditions,” the authors explain.”

Nitrogen pollution occurs mainly from the inefficient use of fertilizer and manure on farmland, and is a significant environmental concern. Despite this, any policies addressing this pollution source have been largely ineffective.

In their research, the study’s authors looked at the potential impact of a requirement to steadily increase the proportion of enhanced efficiency fertilizer sold alongside traditional fertilizer. They view this as an incentive for technology development within the industry.

Similar to the fuel efficiency standards implemented in the auto industry, the price of enhanced-efficiency fertilizers (EEF) could be more costly to growers. However, they may ultimately lead to increased profits, as lower amounts are needed to grow crops – just like how more fuel-efficient car use less gasoline. EEFs are already produced by several major fertilizer companies, and have been shown to improve yields while reducing nitrogen losses. Despite their success, EEFs are only used on about 12 percent of U.S. corn cropland.

The researchers’ analysis involved examining how CAFE-style standard mandating greater use of EEFs over a ten-year period would affect incomes from higher yields and increased fertilizer costs. The results showed that higher efficiency standards – depending on the standard set – could result in net economic benefits of $5-8 billion per year by 2030. These benefits account for both farmer and industry profits as well as environmental and human health gains from reduced nitrogen pollution.

A state could pioneer such an approach – possibly California, which has already adopted ambitious climate goals across all sectors,” the authors propose. “Although the heterogeneity of agricultural, climatic, and political systems across the world requires a range of policy approaches to address the nitrogen pollution issue, industry-focused technology-forcing policies could be a promising option for reducing nitrogen losses, even as we push our planet to produce far more food.”

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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