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Interview with Anke Kwast, Head of Product and Application R&D at Yara International

Yara studies soil conditions for many years, what are your main observations? 

Soils need to be seen as living ecosystems, which are crucial for the wellbeing of life on earth and a sustainable future. They are regulating, storing and filtering water and providing biodiversity. They sequester and store carbon and therefore contribute to climate change mitigation. With regard to our food chain, healthy soils are a prerequisite for food security. Soils are providing nutrients and water to crops and there are complex interactions between crops and the microbiome of soils which are still not fully understood. The impact of cropping systems on soil health need to be studied in long term trials, as it takes years to see the differences. Data of 114 long-term trials at 100 sites worldwide show that both mineral and organic fertilizer improve soil organic matter content and have therefore a positive impact on soil health (Ladha et al. 2011). Yara has its own classical long-term trial at the Research Centre for Crop Nutrition and Environmental Research Hanninghof in Germany, established in 1958. Here, balanced mineral nutrition of crops is compared with organic fertilizers (manure), or plots that have not received any fertilizer at all since 60 years. The results are showing that balanced crop nutrition with mineral fertilizer helped the crop to produce almost three times more grain than the plot without fertilizer, an insight that is becoming more and more relevant, not only for food security. It is also relevant in a climate perspective, as the higher land use efficiency frees soil for forests and wet lands with high carbon sequestration. In line with the findings from Ladha, the soil organic matter (SOM) has been improved by a balanced nutrition with mineral fertilizers and organic fertilizers versus the unfertilized plots. Our learning is, that we need to substitute the nutrients we are removing from our soils by the harvest. They are first of all essential for the crops and the soil microbiome, but as the soil-crop system is the starting point of our food chain, a depletion of the soil is also leading to a depletion of vital nutrients in the food chain. Therefore, a balanced nutrition aiming at replacing the minerals, which have been removed from the soil by harvest is a prerequisite for nutritious food. Even though the results are obtained at a specific site, the insights are applicable to any cropping system and are of global relevance.

Which initiatives has Yara planned or are already in development to improve the condition of soils?

Yara is addressing soil health in many ways. Based on the awareness of how critical soil health is for the food chain and the climate, Yara is involved in various initiatives and organizations. Another important aspect in order to manage soil health is a method to measure it. Nowadays, several methods are proposed and in development and Yara’s R&D team is examining them in close cooperation with other research organizations. MegaLab, Yara’s analytical service team, is working on the establishment of suitable soil health analytics. The continuation of the long term trial research in close collaboration with other research organizations will further deepen the knowledge on soil health. All the findings will be integrated into the recommendation and decision guidance tools Yara is providing to the famers to support soil health in the cropping systems.

What is the impact of circular farming or circular food for the health of soils?

We all have to think more in circles, and circular economy is part of a sustainable future. When organic fertilizers are available at the farm site, they shall be used first. Only nutrients, which are additionally required, should be supplemented with mineral fertilizers to meet the crop demand. Since organic fertilizers deliver their nutrients over time and in a variable way, Yara provides tools and services to enable a precise nitrogen management taking into consideration the nutrient supply from organic fertilizer sources. It starts already at the nutrient management planning, where Yara provides e.g. for Germany a tool which includes all sources of nutrients in the nutrient management planning. For the high season of fertilization, tissue analytic service and tools like the Yara N-Tester, Yara N-Sensor and AtFarm are offered to limit the nitrogen fertilizer application to what is required at that moment. Further developments are in the pipeline with a focus on digital solutions. Yara is also working on the recycling of nutrients and organic matter from waste streams outside of the farm to add them back to agriculture. The first circular product has been recently launched in Finland and there are more products to come.