Farm [photo] 


Leveraging knowledge, technology and innovation to ensure sustainably increased food production

By Dr J.J. Bornman
General Manager: Solution Marketing

Murray Gell-Mann, the 1969 Nobel Laureate for physics, recently gave a striking, to the point, definition of sustainability: 

“Sustainability means living on nature’s income rather than its capital”.

Nature, or “the environment” is indeed precious and fragile. It should be cautiously utilised to sustain humankind without its detriment.

The fact is that the world will be populated with nine billion people by 2030 and the area available for the production of food is diminishing by the day. This translates to more food production per unit of land and the necessity to use mineral fertilizers. It is estimated that food production in 2030 will be based on 60-70% of crop nutrition provided by mineral fertilizers. The unit area that will be available for food production worldwide per person in 2030 will be a concerningly minute 0.2 ha. Over the last 20 years this resource has decreased by 26% and South Africa is no exception, with agricultural land per capita decreasing from 6 ha in 1960 to an expected 1.5 ha in 2030 (a decrease of roughly 1% per year).Leveraging knowledge, technology and innovation to ensure 
sustainably increased food production Figure 1: Exposed soil due to phosphorous deficiency caused by a lack of fertilizer can lead to soil erosion and land degradation under both rainfed and irrigated conditions.

First of all, Omnia has a state-of-the-art fertilizer manufacturing facility at Sasolburg, where ammonia is converted to nitric acid and ammonium nitrate with the best international production technology available, which ensures that virtually no emissions of greenhouse gases escapes into the atmosphere. Compared to international factories that manufacture commodity nitrogen fertilizer, this is a reduction of an equivalent to 40% CO2 being released into the atmosphere per unit of nitrogen produced. It has in fact been proven in a comprehensive survey in the UK and Europe that the ecological effect of ammonium nitrate against urea measured by a so called impact index (EcoX) is 2.2 times higher for urea than for ammonium nitrate (Figure 2). ExoX is compiled from aspects influencing greenhouse gas release from production to field application, land use requirement, soil acidification effect, and net resultant eutrophication per tonne of wheat grain produced on the field.

Figure 2: Index of the environmental impact of different nitrogen sources. 
Brentrup et al., 2004) 
Figure 2: Index of the environmental impact of different nitrogen sources. Brentrup et al., 2004)

Besides the ultra-clean production process, the production facility at Sasolburg also generates most of its own energy by generating steam. Water is recycled and cleaned and also independently monitored before being released into open waterways. All raw materials are analysed at a parts per billion level with state-of-the-art analysis techniques to ensure zero contamination with potentially toxic heavy metal elements such as cadmium and mercury. Omnia’s fertilizer products are in actual fact legally certified regarding content of heavy metal elements.

It is well known across the world that ammonium nitrate, the basis of most of Omnia’s fertilizer products, is a more superior nitrogen source to the world commodity nitrogen fertilizer urea. A recent literature study from several review articles indicates that ammonium nitrate has a 47% higher agronomic efficiency than urea per unit of nitrogen field applied. That firmly supports the findings as mentioned above.

The flagship products of Omnia Fertilizer are chemically granulated, which means that each granule contains exactly the same concentration of plant nutrients. Such plant nutrients include secondary elements like calcium and sulphur which are usually discarded when manufacturing world commodity high concentrate fertilizers. Omnia actually also reworks such discarded gypsum from older technology production processes as valuable plant nutrients into granulated products.

The homogenous distribution of nutrients and the presence of secondary and micro elements in Omnia Fertilizer’s granulated products, enhance nutrient use efficiency by 10% to 20% as proven by independent international research. The presence of nitrates, calcium and sulphate sulphur in one granule also increases water use efficiency. Local independent research has proven that the water use efficiency of maize may be doubled and that of wheat tripled, using said nutrient combinations (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Omnia greenhouse pot trial data with test crops maize and wheat indicating water use efficiency with different nitrogen sources under drought stress. Figure 3: Omnia greenhouse pot trial data with test crops maize and wheat indicating water use efficiency with different nitrogen sources under drought stress. The least significant difference (Fisher’s LSD) is indicated at a statistical level of significance of 95%. Ehlers & Bornman, 2017

Key: AN = ammonium nitrate,
AN + Ca = e.g. limestone ammonium nitrate (LAN) or Greensulf,
Nitrate + Ca = calcium nitrate or OmniCal®

Besides having access to state-of-the-art environmentally friendly products, the team of agronomists in Omnia Fertilizer provides specific innovative and responsible agronomic services to ensure sustainability and environmental consciousness.

These services include access to field derived production functions, algorithms and tools such as the chlorophyll meter (Minolta SPAD 502) to monitor the nitrogen requirements of a crop throughout the season. As an example, a five year study in the Western Cape (as published on the Omnia Fertilizer website) has shown that nitrogen use efficiency was increased by clients of Omnia on small grains, canola and pastures from 40% to more than 60% using the mentioned technology.

Omnia also has a cutting edge precision farming unit, OmniPrecise®, which assists farmers in applying nutrients and ameliorants where needed, ensuring near optimum nutrient use efficiency. Data from Omnia and international researchers have shown increases in crop production of 10 to 15% and decreases in application of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous of between 10 and 17%.

Omnia agronomists are specifically educated in sound practices such as minimum tillage, cover cropping and crop rotation which support sound sustainable farming. These practices are guided by the Omnia Soil Health Index (Soil Health Prism) supported by the OmniBio unit, which provides sophisticated interpretation of soil life and other restricting factors relating to soil physical and chemical properties.

Some of the major buzzwords for the future, in terms of enhancing production per unit area, especially in Southern Africa is irrigation, fertigation, hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics (integrated marine animal and crop production). Regarding these traits, Omnia has already positioned itself by designing a comprehensively monitored system to apply water, nutrients and stimulants in the most efficient way technology allows today. It is called the Omnia Fertigation Optimization System (OFOS) and the model has already proven itself in the field since 2000. Nutrient savings of up to 30% and economic crop yield and quality increases have been scientifically proven.

The above are just a few examples of Omnia Fertilizer’s endeavors to conduct its business responsibly towards sustainability and continued environmental consciousness. However, the mission is nowhere near completed. On the contrary, the challenges facing agriculture escalate each day.

Primary references used

Adriaanse, F. G., 2012. Efficacy and application of nitrogen sources. Proceedings of the Technical Symposium of the Fertilizer Society of South Africa, Pretoria, 22 August 2012. Pages 4 to 19.

Below, F. E., Brandau, P. S. & Yockey, J. A., 1996. Sources and Forms of Nitrogen for Optimum Corn Production. Illinois Fertilizer Conference Proceedings. University of Illinois.

Bornman, 2012. Accessed January 2018. The classic benefit of nitrate containing fertilizer.

Bornman, J., 2017. Agricultural land shrinks rapidly for food production (language – Afrikaans). Landbouweekblad, 14 April, p 19.

Bornman, J.J., 2016. Accessed January 2018. The Sulphur sting., also available in booklet form (PDF format).

Brentrup F., Küsters J., Lammel J., Barraclough P., Kuhlmann H., 2004. Environmental impact assessment of agricultural production systems using the life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology II. The application to N fertilizer use in winter wheat production systems. Europ. J. Agronomy 20, 265–279.

Ehlers, L. & Bornman, J.J. 2017. The effect of different nitrogen sources on the yield and water use efficiency of dryland maize (Zea Mays L.) grown in a semi-arid region. Proceedings of the joint crop production conference, Bela Bela, Limpopo, South Africa.

Inta Bragado, 1997. in YaraBela. 2008. Products you can rely on. A booklet distributed by Yara Fertilizer International ASA.

Isherwood, K.F., 2000. Fertilizer use and the environment. International Fertilizer Industry Association publication. Revised edition. United Nations Environment Programme. Paris. Internet accessible PDF document.

Jones, C. A., Koenig, R.T., Ellsworth, J.W., Brown, B. A. & Jackson, G. D., 2007. Management of uea fertilizer to minimize volatilization. Montana and Washington State University Extension Booklet EB137.

Kellerman, M. & Bornman J.J., 2017. Accessed January 2018. Nitrogen use efficiency of wheat in the Western Cape.

Lesouder, C. & Taureau, J., 1997. Fertilisation azotée, formes et modes d’actions. Perspectives Agricoles N° 221.

Meiring, P.L.U., Accessed January 2018. OFOS: A new comprehensive optimised fertigation system by Omnia. A workable solution in fruit production.

Moodley, V. Accessed January 2018. Sustainability: Omnia’s soil health prism- measuring and managing the basis of Life.

Savci, S., 2012. Investigation of Effect of chemical fertilizers on the environment. APCBEE Procedia 1, p 287 – 292

Sayera J & Cassmanb, K.G., 2013. Agricultural innovation to protect the environment. PNAS, vol 110 (21), p 8345–8348.

Yara France, 2009. in Torres, L., 2010. Agronomic efficiency of Yara Bela Nitrates vs Urea/UAN. Presentation by Yara International ASA.