World Water Day addresses sustainability in agriculture, fertilizer sectors

Author: Annalise Porter


HOUSTON (ICIS)--Global organisations addressed sustainability - including within the agricultural sector and fertilizer industry - during World Water Day on 22 March.

Agriculture consumes around 70% of global freshwater withdrawals annually. Meanwhile, climate change is causing drier soil conditions, larger precipitation variability and higher evaporation rates.

As well as consuming large quantities of water, agriculture and fertilizers have a long-running history of causing water quality issues. These include contamination from fertilizers and pesticides in water runoff, as well as sedimentation issues in ground water supplies.

In the US, the Salton Sea in California is an acute example of this. Created accidentally by a water infrastructure breakdown in the early 1900s, the landlocked lake now has extreme levels of agricultural contaminants that have led to illness or death in plants, animals and people living nearby.

The United Nations has a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs), and water issues are included in SDG 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) noted in this year’s State of Food and Agriculture report that hitting this goal will be a struggle.

“Success is still achievable, but only by ensuring more productive and sustainable use of freshwater and rainwater in agriculture,” according to the report.

Several key initiatives to promote more sustainable agriculture in recent years have emerged.

For areas with high levels of precipitation, a focus has been on increased rainwater capture in lieu of using water from rivers or pumping from underground aquifers.  In more arid regions, there has been a push to modernise irrigation infrastructure – and providing monetary incentives to do so, since efficiency upgrades can be costly.

In a virtual World Water Day event based out of Rome, FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said, “We need the ingenuity of the private sector, the drive of civil society and the solidarity of the international community. We need to create synergy by joining hands and working together.”

On the manufacturing side, fertilizer producers have taken on water sustainability measures over the years. Production processes require significant amounts of the natural resource, and discharge large amounts as a waste byproduct as well.

In the US, Idaho-based firm JR Simplot Company has a goal of reducing its freshwater intake by 15% per ton of product by 2030.

Canadian producer Nutrien is working on using alternative water sources in its production, such as grey water, recycled water or ocean water. The company’s water intake during 2019 was 217m cubic metres, a 4% increase from the previous year.

US-headquartered Mosaic is aiming to reduce its freshwater use by 20% per tonne by 2025.

US-based TFI (The Fertilizer Institute) noted in its most recent sustainability report that nitrogen production uses 53% less water per ton in 2019 than in 2013.

The push for sustainability in water use extends to the sulphuric acid industry as well, which provides necessary feedstocks to fertilizer producers. The International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM) puts an emphasis on ethical environmental, social and governance procedures.

Membership to the group involves an extensive process through which applying members must adhere to 10 main principles. These range from human rights and institutional development to sustainability and water stewardship. ICMM currently has 28 member companies.

Focus story by Annalise Porter