Nature’s core business is the production of specialty fertilizers, which is closely linked to agricultural productivity and food production. The role of fertilizers in food production is usually underestimated. Fertilizers are food for plants. Just as humans need essential minerals and nutrients for strong, healthy growth, so do plants.
The three most important nutrients needed for a variety of growth processes are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). Other minerals are also essential as micronutrients – for example, manganese (Mn), iron (Fe) and copper (Cu) – and have a number of important functions in plant nutrition.
Fertilizers replace the nutrients that plants extract from the soil. Without the addition of fertilizers, crop yields would drop significantly. Fertilizers are therefore used to supplement the soil’s nutrient stocks with minerals that can be quickly absorbed and utilized by the plants.
Plants require a balanced diet of essential nutrients throughout their growth cycle.
Many plant foods are found in the soil, but often not in sufficient quantity to produce high yields. Soil and climatic conditions can also limit the plant’s uptake of nutrients during important growth stages.
Plants require 13 essential minerals, all of which perform a number of important functions. If any of them are lacking, plant growth suffers.
Nitrogen (N) is often required in the greatest quantity by crops, primarily for energy and produce. Nitrogen plays a key role in chlorophyll production and protein synthesis. Chlorophyll is the green plant pigment responsible for photosynthesis. When nitrogen is deficient, plants develop yellow or pale leaves and their growth is limited.
Phosphorus (P), is a vital component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which supplies the energy for many processes in the plant. Phosphorus rarely produces spectacular growth responses, but is fundamental to the successful development of all plants.
Potassium (K) is needed by virtually all crops and often in higher rates than nitrogen. Potassium regulates the plant’s water content and expansion. It is key to achieving increase in size, juice composition and sweetness of fruit.
Of the three secondary nutrients needed at lower levels than NPK, Calcium (Ca) is perhaps the most important. Calcium strengthens cell walls, helping to reduce bruising and disease in fruit, salad and vegetable crops. This means that a good supply of calcium produces food crops that are less prone to damage and have a longer shelf life. Crops short in calcium will have growth disorders such as corky skin.
Magnesium (Mg) is also important for crop quality, but is also a key component of leaf chlorophyll and the enzymes that support plant growth. Low magnesium leads to reduced photosynthesis, which severely limits crop yields.
Sulfur (S) is an essential part of many amino acids and proteins. Without both S and Mg, crops suffer; growth slows and leaves turn pale or yellow.
Most micronutrients influence growth. For example, manganese (Mn), iron (Fe) and copper (Cu) all influence photosynthesis, the process whereby plants use sunlight for their growth.
Iron (Fe) deficiencies are common – for example in seed fruits – where the effect is to reduce production of chlorophyll. As a result, plants struggle and younger leaves develop severe yellowing.
Boron (B) is needed for the development of shoots and roots, and is essential during the flowering and fruiting phases of plants.
Zinc (Zn) is needed for the production of important plant hormones, like auxin. Zinc deficiency leads to structural defects in leaves and other plant organs.
Molybdenum (Mo) is involved in plant enzyme systems that control nitrogen metabolism.