Wal-Mart pushes plan to reduce fertilizer

By Jonathan Ellis, USA Today
16 March 2014

Retail giant Wal-Mart could hold a key to reducing water pollution while making agriculture production more efficient in a program that conservationists and agricultural groups are touting as a "win-win."

Wal-Mart, which embarked in 2009 to develop sustainability measurements of products it sells, said in the fall it would require suppliers of crops, including corn, wheat and soy, to begin developing fertilizer-optimization plans. Participants include food supplier Cargill and producer Kellogg’s.

Wal-Mart said it hopes to reduce fertilizer — one of the biggest sources of pollution in lakes and rivers — on 14 million acres of farmland by 2020. It has been unveiling its new initiative at farm association meetings this winter.

Over-fertilization is blamed for water-quality problems across the country. Last month, the International Joint Commission — a U.S. and Canadian group that oversees shared water bodies — issued a report calling for reductions in phosphorous used in fertilizers in states around Lake Erie. The report noted that phosphorous was contributing to massive algae blooms and dead zones in Lake Erie, threatening fisheries, drinking water and recreation.

Ohio lawmakers are debating a bill to require the state’s agriculture department to establish a fertilizer-certification program for anyone who applies fertilizer on more than 50 acres.

"This is significant, there’s no question, because Wal-Mart is a player throughout the world," said Lisa Richardson, the executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association.

At first, farm producers were hesitant about Wal-Mart’s call for fertilizer plans because they have historically had little interaction with retailers, who are at the other end of the supply chain, said Brittni Furrow, a director of sustainability at Wal-Mart.

But the company’s streamlined, low-cost operating model is one that farmers can relate to, Furrow said. "They want to optimize. They want to be efficient. That’s in their DNA, too," she said.

After rent, fertilizer is typically the biggest expense that farmers incur, Richardson said. So producers have an incentive to ensure they’re using the right amounts of fertilizer.

"Everyone is looking at how to do more with less.," Richardson said.

Developing a fertilizer-optimization plan involves soil testing, said Luther Smith, the director of certification programs for the American Society of Agronomy. Soil tests tell a farmer the right time, right location, right quantity and right type of fertilizer to apply in a given area.

"If they use that precision technique, it has the ability to make the farmer more precise, more accurate," Smith said. "You get better production."

Suzy Friedman, the sustainable agriculture director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said Wal-Mart’s decision offers a market solution to sustainable farming vs. the rigidity of government regulation.

"Farmers talk a lot about how they want the market to drive demand for what and how they produce," Friedman said. "I think this is the first time this is going to happen in a big way."

Nitrogen, a common fertilizer, is 300 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, Friedman said. When too much is applied, it leaches into ground water or enters the atmosphere as nitrous oxide.

               The key, Friedman said, will be to use fertilizer that meets growing worldwide demands for food                     while also protecting natural resources.