What is fertilizer and what’s in it?
Humans, animals and plants rely on a safe, healthy supply of food and nutrients like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) for proper growth and development. Fertilizer is the “food” that plants need to produce a healthy and bountiful crop. Many people refer to fertilizer as “plant food.” Experts estimate that without commercial fertilizers, the world would be without one-third of its food supply.
Plants require 14 essential nutrients for healthy growth. The absence of any one nutrient in the soil can limit plant growth, even when all other plant nutrients are present in adequate amounts. The three macronutrients that are essential for food production and quality are: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Nitrogen comes from the air and is the primary building block for all life. The air we breath is about 78 percent nitrogen, but there are very few plants that can make direct use of nitrogen in the air. To make this nitrogen available to support life, nitrogen from the atmosphere is converted into a form plants can easily use.
Nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing captures naturally occurring nitrogen from the atmosphere, and combines it with hydrogen from natural gas under heat and pressure to form anhydrous ammonia. Ammonia is used in two ways: it is applied directly to crops as a nitrogen fertilizer and it is used as a building block to make other nitrogen fertilizer products, including urea, ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate and water-based liquid nitrogen fertilizers.
Nitrogen helps makes plants green and plays a major role in boosting crop yields. Nitrogen plays a critical role in protein formation and is a key component of chlorophyll. Plants with adequate nitrogen show healthy vigorous growth, strong root development, dark green foliage, increased seed and fruit formation and higher yields.
The top five nitrogen producing countries in 2002 were China, India, the United States, Russia and Canada.
Phosphorus is present in all living cells and is essential to all forms of life. Phosphorus is the second most abundant of all the mineral nutrients contained in our bodies. It can be found in every cell, but nearly 80 percent of phosphorus found in people is concentrated in teeth and bones.
The source of phosphorus in fertilizer is fossilized remains of marine life found in rock deposits in North America and North Africa, and volcanic activity in China. The phosphate manufacturing process combines phosphate rock from these natural geological deposits with sulfuric acid to produce a concentrated phosphorus solution.
Potassium is the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust and is found in every cell of plants and animals. Potassium helps plants grow strong stalks, in the same way that calcium gives people strong bones. More than 85 percent of the body’s potassium is found in the muscles, skin, blood, digestive tract and liver.
Fertilizer producers mine potassium, or potash, from naturally occurring ore deposits that were formed when seas and oceans evaporated, many of which are covered with several thousands of feet of earth. Once the ore is brought to the surface, unwanted minerals are removed in the manufacturing process and the product is then granulated for application.
Regulations in Georgia
The Georgia Department of Agriculture regulates the sale and labeling of fertilizer. The “analysis” on a bag of fertilizer at the retail store gives the break down of nitrogen, phosphate and potash. The remaining percentage not accounted for in these three minerals is filler and other micronutrients that allow the fertilizer to be equally spread.
The Georgia Fertilizer Act requires persons who distribute fertilizer in Georgia to be licensed and all specialty fertilizers be registered. This Act also regulates labeling, product sampling and tonnage reporting. Anyone who distributes a fertilizer in Georgia to non-licensees must pay an inspection fee of $0.60 per ton to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
These regulations are put in place to monitor the use of fertilizer. Unfortunately, rare instances of abuse have caused homeland security concerns. Retail outlets practice methods which would monitor any abnormal purchases and there are strict guidelines for reporting a situation.