Synthetic fertilizer usage (especially nitrogen based synthetic fertilizers) has ties to sustainability, and can also have an environmental, wildlife and human impact.
In this guide, we outline how you might decrease the fertilizer footprint in the foods you eat, and fibres you wear, by outlining the the crops that might use more fertilizer to produce than others.
*Note that this is a general information guide only. It is not professional advice. Speak to a qualified health professional before making changes to your health or diet.
Summary – How You Might Decrease The Fertilizer Footprint In The Foods You Eat, & Fibres You Wear
Being mindful of the following foods and fibres can help lower an individual’s fertilizer footprint:
Almond, rice, wheat, processed tomatoes and lettuce all use the most total nitrogen fertilizer in California
Banana has a very high fertilizer application rate (fertilizer applied per square area) worldwide
Cereal crops (like wheat, oat, rye, barley, corn, grains etc) have high total fertilizer application amounts and application rates worldwide
Conventional cotton uses the most fertilizer of any fibre crop by far
There is a fertilizer wastage footprint (of the fertilizer used at the agricultural stage) when foods are wasted by consumers – fruits and vegetables are some of the most highly wasted food groups
Even crops grown as animal feed use fertilizer for their production
This is an extremely simplistic way of looking at things, and is a starting guide only.
There are obviously many variables to fertilizer usage and application rates, and each type of food and fibre on each farm should really be assessed individually on it’s own merits and farming/production and delivery process.
There’s also a big difference between synthetic man made fertilizers, and organic fertilizers.
We make note of some of the fertilizer variables in the notes section below.
Which Foods Use The Most & Least Fertilizer
What should be noted in the results below is that feed grains, oilseeds and hay crops can be largely used for livestock feed.
So, animal products and animal meat can be responsible for fertilizer usage, as well as plant based foods.
In California, the average-nitrogen-use estimates for foods by the average harvested acreage for 2002 to 2007 (as a relative proportion of the overall nitrogen fertilizer used) were:
Almond – 15%
Wheat – 10%
Rice – 10%
Processed Tomatoes – 7%
Lettuce – 6%
Grapes – 4%
Walnut – 4%
Stone Fruit – 3%
Oranges – 3%
Broccoli – 3%
Carrots – 2%
Pistachio – 2%
Onions – 1%
Potato – 1%
Avocado – 1%
Lemons – 1%
Cauliflower – 1%
Celery – 1%
Strawberry – 1%
Sweet Corn – 1%
Melons – 1%
Peppers – 1%
Fresh Market Tomatoes – 1%
Dry Beans – 1%
Worldwide, the crops with the highest fertilizer application rates in kg per hectare (of nitrogen, phosphate and potash) are:
1. Banana – 479 (kgs per hectare)
Sugar beet – 254 kg/ha
Citrus – 252 kg/ha
Vegetables – 242 kg/ha
Potato – 243 kg/ha
Oil-palm – 242 kg/ha
Sweet potato – 225 kg/ha
Tobacco – 225 kg/ha
Tea – 225 kg/ha
10. Sugar cane – 202 kg/ha
And, worldwide, fertilizer use on the different types of food arable and permanent crops, both as a % of total and an application rate in kg per hectare, was:
Cereals – 64% (of total fertilizer use), and a 102 kg per hectare fertilizer application rate
Oilseeds – 9.2%, and 85kg/ha
Vegetables – 4.9%, and 242kg/ha
Sugar beet/cane – 4.7%, and 216kg/ha
Roots/tubers – 4.5%, and 212kg/ha
Fruits – 3.6%, and 163kg/ha
Tobacco, beverages – 2.0%, and 153kg/ha
Pulses – 1.9%, and 39kg/ha
Which Fibres Use The Most & Least Fertilizer
Cotton used the most fertilizer of any fibre crop by a significant amount.
In California, the average-nitrogen-use estimate for cotton by the average harvested acreage for 2002 to 2007 (as a relative proportion of the overall nitrogen fertilizer used) was 16%.
This was the largest % of the total nitrogen applied to any type of crop.
Almond received 15%, rice and wheat each received 10%, processing tomatoes received 7% and lettuce received 6%.
Worldwide, fertilizer use on fibres as a total (compared to other types of crops), both as a % of total and an application rate in kg per hectare, was:
Fibres – 4.4%, and 144kg/ha
Foods That Waste The Most Fertilizer During Production
Feed and grains grown for livestock (as opposed to plant based food crops) are mostly responsible for wasted fertilizer.
Some number on wasted fertilizers are:
Approximately 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, 1.5 billion pounds of phosphorus fertilizer, and 2.3 billion pounds of potash fertilizer were applied to wasted cropland, largely attributable to cropland used to produce feed grains and oilseeds and hay.
Notes Of Fertilizer
Fertilizer can be synthetic fertilizer, or it can be a more natural fertilizer e.g. animal manure
Organic farming methods place an emphasis on natural fertilizer over synthetic fertilizer
Natural fertilizer will obviously have different side effects on the environment, wildlife etc. compared to synthetic fertilizer
Fertilizer is applied in different amounts and at different application rates in different countries
Different individual farms and farming methods will have different fertilizer usages
There are different types of synthetic fertilizer – nitrogen, potash and phosphorus
All of these factors/variables, plus others, will and can impact the use and side effects of fertilizer for foods and fibres.
Potential Impacts Of Fertilizer Usage
Nitrogen fertilizer represents the single largest investment of energy in the production of many crops, and circulation of reactive nitrogen can have negative effects on atmospheric conditions, in terrestrial ecosystems, in freshwater and marine systems, and on human health.
Phosphorus fertilizers are produced by mining finite resources of phosphate rock, and can fuel harmful algal blooms when lost to the aquatic environment.
There’s the impact of making synthetic fertilizer (which uses a lot of energy), plus it’s impact out in the environment to consider.
3. Conrad, Z., Niles, M.T., Neher, D.A., Roy, E.D., Tichenor, N.E. and Jahns, L., 2018. Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. PloS one, 13(4), p.e0195405. – https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195405