Closing nutrient cycles

University dissertation from Linköping : Linköping University Electronic Press


Adequate and balanced crop nutrition – with nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) – is vital for sustainable crop production. Inadequate and imbalanced crop nutrition contributes to the crop yield gaps – a difference in actual and potential crop yield. Yield gap is one of the many causes of insufficient food production, thus aggravating hunger and malnourishment across the globe. On the other hand, an oversupply of nutrients is highly unsustainable, in terms of both resource conservation and global environmental health. A decreasing excreta recycling in crop production is one of the many reasons for nutrient imbalances in agriculture. Previous studies show that increasing agricultural specialization leads to spatial separation of crop and animal production. Increasing distance between excreta production and crop needs is one of the leading factors that cause reduced excreta recycling. Studies focusing on excreta recycling show that a substantial barrier to a more efficient excreta nutrient reuse is the expensive transportation of bulky volumes of excreta over long distances. In order to overcome that barrier, more detailed spatial estimates of distances between excreta production and crop nutrient needs, and the associated costs for complete excreta transport in an entire country are needed. Hence, the overall aim of this thesis was to quantify the amount of nutrients in the excreta resources compared to the crop nutrient needs at multiple scales (global, national, subnational, and local), and to analyze the need for excreta transports, total distances and costs, to meet the crop nutrient needs in a country.

On the global scale, annual (2000-2016) excreta supply (livestock and human) could provide at least 48% of N, 57% of P, and 81% of K crop needs. Although excreta supply was not enough to cover the annual crop nutrient needs at the global scale, at least 29 countries for N, 41 for P, and 71 for K had an excreta nutrient surplus. When including the annual use of synthetic fertilizers, at least 42 additional countries had a N surplus, with the equivalent figures for P being 17 countries, whereas 8 additional countries attained a K surplus. At the same time, when accounting for the use of synthetic fertilizers, each year, at least 57 countries had an N deficit, 70 a P deficit, and 51 countries a K deficit, in total equivalent to 14% of global N and 16% of each P and K crop needs. The total surplus in other countries during the period was always higher than the deficit in the countries with net nutrient deficits, except for P for some years. Unfortunately, both the deficits of the deficit countries and surpluses of the surplus countries were increasing substantially during the 17 years. Such global divergence in nutrient deficits and surpluses have clear implications for global food security and environmental health.

A district-scale investigation of Pakistan showed that the country had a national deficit of 0.62 million tons of P and 0.59 million tons of K, but an oversupply of N. The spatial separation was not significant at this resolution; only 6% of the excreta N supply needed to be transported between districts. Recycling all excreta, within and between districts, could cut the use of synthetic N to 43% of its current use and eliminate the need for synthetic K, but there would be an additional need of 0.28 million tons of synthetic P to meet the crop nutrient needs in the entire country. The need for synthetic fertilizers to supplement the recycled excreta nutrients would cost USD 2.77 billion. However, it might not be prohibitively expensive to correct for P deficiencies because of the savings on the costs of synthetic N, and K. Excreta recycling could promote balanced crop nutrition at the national scale in Pakistan, which in turn could eliminate the nutrient-related crop yield gaps in the country.

The municipal-scale investigation using Swedish data showed that the country had a national oversupply of 110,000 tons of N, 6,000 tons of P, and 76,000 tons of K. Excreta could provide up to 75% of N and 81% of P, and more than 100% of the K crop needs in the country. The spatial separation was pronounced at the municipal scale in the country. Just 40% of the municipalities produced over 50% of the excreta N and P. Nutrient balance calculations showed that excreta recycling within municipalities could provide 63% of the P crop needs. Another 18% of the P crop needs must be transported from surplus municipalities to deficit municipalities. Nationally, an optimized reallocation of surplus excreta P towards the P deficit municipalities would cost USD 192 million for a total of 24,079 km truck transports. The cost was 3.7 times more than the total NPK fertilizer value transported, and that met the crop nutrient needs. It was concluded that Sweden could potentially reduce its dependence on synthetic fertilizers, but to cover the costs of an improved excreta reuse would require valuing the additional benefits of recycling.

An investigation was also done to understand the effect of the input data resolution on the results (transport needs and distances) from a model to optimize excreta redistribution. The results showed that the need for excreta transports, distances, and spatial patterns of the excreta transports changed. Increasing resolution of the spatial data, from political boundaries in Sweden and Pakistan to 0.083 decimal grids (approximately 10 km by 10 km at the equator), showed that transport needs for excreta-N increased by 12% in Pakistan, and the transport needs for excreta-P increased by 14% in Sweden. The effect of the increased resolution on transport analysis showed inconsistency in terms of the excreta total nutrient transportation distance; the average distance decreased by 67% (to 44 km) in Pakistan but increased by 1 km in Sweden. A further increase in the data resolution to 5 km by 5 km grids for Sweden showed that the average transportation distance decreased by 9 km. In both countries, increasing input data resolution resulted in a more favorable cost to fertilizer value ratios. In Pakistan, the cost of transport was only 13% of the NPK fertilizer value transported at a higher resolution. In Sweden, the costs decreased from 3.7 (at the political resolution) to slightly higher than three times of the fertilizer value transported in excreta at the higher data resolution.

This Ph.D. thesis shows that we could potentially reduce the total use of synthetic fertilizers in the world and still reduce the yield gaps if we can create a more efficient recycling of nutrients both within and between countries, and a more demand adapted use of synthetic fertilizers.

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