Preserve the future of forests with fertilizers

Agricultural fertilizers are key for increasing agricultural yields and productivity. However, their use also has the potential to reduce one of the greatest threats to the world's forests.

March 14, 2023
2 mins

Forests are wonderful places. When we think of forests we may think about a lush green canopy with dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves, or perhaps we think of the diverse plant and animal species that make forests their home, from towering trees to tiny insects and everything in-between. But we also need to consider the vital role that forests play in maintaining the health of the planet.

Environmentally important

Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen. They also help to prevent soil erosion and protect water quality, making them an essential part of the Earth’s ecosystem. And yet they are under threat and being lost at a rate of around one football pitch every two seconds.

Agriculture and deforestation

One of the key pressures on forests is the demand for new land for agriculture. Low-input farming for cocoa, cassava, and oil palm in West Africa, for example, has resulted in widespread deforestation and degradation of West Africa’s tropical forest area. In these low-input systems, forests are cleared, and then crops are grown on the new land. Once the soil is depleted of nutrients, the growers simply clear a new section of forest and start again. And as growers look to increase production, they continue to move into new, freshly cleared forest areas.

How can fertilizer reduce deforestation?

Researchers for the IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) reveal that, on average, farmers growing cocoa under these low-input systems are typically using less than 4kg of total nutrients per hectare, a tiny fraction of that used in modern farming systems. In their article, Low fertilizer use drives deforestation in West Africa, the IITA researchers describe how increasing the fertilizer use on these cocoa farms would have meant farmers would not need to move into new areas of forest, and for this crop alone could have spared roughly 2 million hectares of tropical forest.

Intensifying the use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, and improving crop husbandry techniques, would not only have preserved vast swathes of forest, over 2 million hectares, but it would have also doubled the farm incomes. And would have reduced the CO2 emissions from deforestation by a staggering 1.3 billion tons.

Fertilizers and climate change

The proper use of fertilizers plays an essential role in the fight against climate change. Fertilizers reduce pressure on forests and help avoid land-use changes by increasing the long-term productivity of the available arable land. This is crucial for climate change mitigation, as deforestation and land-use conversion combined represent about 30–50% of agricultural greenhouse emissions.