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Uncle Sam's deep pockets

Summary

A new year is always a suitable time for contemplation, and the pundits have been assessing the prospects for the North American fertilizer sector. At first sight, there are some potentially worrying trends - not to mention the anxiety caused by the continuing weakness in nitrogen prices. However, there are reasons for optimism, albeit a cautious one ... and the US fertilizer industry has every reason to be grateful to the government, which has again come to the rescue ofAmerican farmers.

Abstract

As the new year dawned, North American fertilizer suppliers were bracing themselves for rougher market conditions, both at home and overseas. The outlook is not entirely one ofgloom, as the phosphate and potash sectors remain buoyant, while China also continues to hold the key to the North American industry's short- and mediumterm fortunes.

Overshadowing all assessments of market prospects for 1999 is the increasing depression in agriculture throughout the world, as soft prices and high stocks impact on planting forecasts. The FAO estimates that cereal production worldwide fell by 1% in 1998, and cereal supplies in 1998/99 should be sufficient to meet expected consumption requirements. Cereal stocks had declined by 1996 to levels which were widely regarded as below the minimum necessary for world food security, bur high market prices then had encouraged farmers to step up plantings, and stocks are now within an acceptable security range, at around 18% of world consumption. Opening stocks of the United States and Canada, which respectively account for 41% and 11% of cereal exports, together with the other three major exporting regions ofthe European Union, Australia and Argentina, have progressively increased from 75 million tonnes in 1996/97 to 103 million tonnes at the beginning of the 1997/98 crop year, and a further increase to 132 million tonnes is forecast for 1998/99.

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Summary

Precision farming is being developed as a new management system to optimise the use of agricultural inputs according to the large variability in the crop's requirements within a single field. Norsk Hydro has responded to the economic and environmental demands for improved fertilizer application technology by developing the Hydro Precise concept.

Abstract

In the UK alone, Norsk Hydro spends around £2 million/year on research on enhancing the products and services the Agriculture division offers its farmer customers. This investment has culminated in the commercial launch of the Hydro Precise range of fertilizer planning tools, which have been designed to provide farmers with high-quality fertilizers and the support services they need to use them with optimum efficiency - both in terms of crop yields and taking account of the environmental pressures they face.

The Hydro Precise concept embraces "Just in Time" management techniques, in which the crop's requirements - measured as close to the time offertilizer application as possible - guide the level offertilizer application. Fertilizer is thus applied as and when required, using crop-specific formulations which improve the efficiency with which nutrients are taken up by the crops, and "real time" crop sensing designed to ensure that nitrogen top dressings match the crop's demands.

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Suitable cases for treatment

Summary

The international fertilizer industry recognises the widespread public concern about the presence of heavy metals in fertilizer products, as well as the problems of disposing of waste by-products. Heavy investment programmes into researching solutions to these matters show much promise, as outlined in this review of the issues that arouse the greatest concern.

Abstract

T he presence ofcertain heavy metals in fertilizer products has prompted public concern about the safety of fertilizers. Although heavy metals occur naturally in all agricultural soils - and some (such as copper and zinc) are vital plant nutrients - there have been numerous calls to impose more stringent regulations on the fertilizer industry. Much of this attention focuses on phosphate fertilizers, which may carry varying amounts of toxic and non-nutritive lead (Pb), cadmium (Cd), as well as Zn and Cu. Arsenic, chromium, mercury and selenium may also be present. Pb and Cd pose the greatest environmental and health risks, but Cd causes the most concern, as a result of its persistence in the environment and its relatively rapid uptake and accumulation by food chain crops.

The presence of these metals in fertilizers supplements any heavy metal content in the soil arising from the weathering ofrocks and minerals or from external contamination. Sewage sludge-based organic fertilizer may also contribute to the contamination of soils, water and crops.

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