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The price of artificial or inorganic fertilizers has surged recently, driving farmers towards natural fertilizers as a sustainable alternative. This trend could lead to a significant shift towards cover cropping, which could offer a cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution for long-term farm viability.

According to the World Bank, the prices of inorganic fertilizers rose by 80 percent in 2021 and a further 30 percent from January to April 2022. Various factors have contributed to these historic highs, including production cuts due to soaring energy prices, sanctions, and export restrictions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and strong demand with rising commodity crop acreage.

Despite the price increase, synthetic fertilizers remain the dominant choice for farmers, largely due to the influence of the industry. However, synthetic fertilizers can cause significant environmental harm, including soil degradation, pollution, and climate change.

Adding minerals right at the plant’s root with synthetic fertilizers prevents it from expanding into the soil and interacting with beneficial microbes that enhance soil health, fertility, and structure, according to soil scientists. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from synthetic fertilizers can also discharge into waterways, inducing algal growth and dead zones.

Farmers have turned to manure instead of synthetic fertilizers, but this option can present similar environmental drawbacks if improperly managed, according to Agricultural Economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Nigel Key.

Cover crops present another alternative, which can help conserve soil, keep nutrients in place for the next cash crop, and promote improved soil health with long-term benefits for farmers. Cover crops also have the potential to save farmers up to US$40 per acre and up to US$10 per acre in fertilizer costs for corn and soybeans, respectively.

However, cover crops also have costs for farmers, including seed and termination expenses. To expand cover crop implementation globally, closing knowledge gaps is crucial, according to Roland Bunch, Founder and CEO of Better Soils, Better Lives. There are over 150 different cover crop systems in use worldwide, and most organizations have no idea which would work best in their own areas, he explains.

Once enough entities learn about the different cover crops and their impacts and successfully train farmers, the results are promising. In the US, the planting of cover crops has increased by 50 percent between 2012 and 2017, and the USDA obligated $155 million in planned payments towards cover crops on about two million acres in 2018.

Cover cropping can provide a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to synthetic fertilizers, as well as a solution for long-term farm viability. By promoting knowledge-sharing, training, and incentives, the agriculture industry can shift towards environmentally sound practices that benefit farmers and the planet.