FCI Trade Summit PREVIEW: Micronutrients a Major Global Business Opportunity

Dr. Raymond Hoyum

Dr. Raymond Hoyum

Editor’s Note: See Dr. Hoyum’s talk at the FCI Trade Summit on Aug. 26 in Las Vegas. Register for the Trade Summit now.

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Often overshadowed by crop nutrient management, micronutrients have emerged globally as a centerpiece of balanced crop nutrition. Why this sudden interest in micronutrients? First, micronutrients are just as essential to healthy plant growth as any major or secondary nutrients.

The only differences are that they are required in smaller amounts, and secondly: As crop yields continue to increase worldwide, the role and importance of micronutrients has been recognized more and more as a critical component of mainstream agricultural systems by both researchers and agricultural practitioners. High-yielding crops not only require a balance of nutrients, they require increasing amounts of major, secondary and micronutrients.

Micronutrients Marketing Opportunities
To feed an ever-growing global population, every country, whether developed or developing, must continue to strive for higher yields and ever-improving crop quality. Although consumption of micronutrients accounts for less than 1% of global fertilizer volume, the essential and specific roles of micronutrients can be a key determiner of crop yields and quality.

Crops often differ in their sensitivity and response to micronutrients, especially as rooting zones are affected. In fact, changes in environmental conditions in the soil and above ground often have a greater effect on micronutrient consumption than on the uptake of major or secondary nutrients. The rapid consumption of major nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous actually cause a dilution of micronutrients within the plant, resulting in a deficiency. For example, zinc was one of the first micronutrients recognized as essential to plants, particularly maize. Because of the importance of maize globally, it is not surprising that zinc is often routinely recommended in both developing and developed countries, especially for high-yielding hybrid varieties.

Although rice and wheat have only low to medium sensitivity, zinc deficiency has been shown to significantly affect their yield worldwide. Recent field research in India has led to a nationwide effort to promote zinc applications on maize, again resulting in a huge marketing opportunity for zinc producers.

Soil moisture management can greatly impact the availability of micronutrients. For irrigated high-yielding crops, the demand on the availability of nutrients, especially micronutrients, can be significant. On the other hand, conditions leading to dry soil can often reduce the availability of micronutrients, especially boron and copper. Whether crops are grown under adequate moisture conditions or in low soil moisture environments, attention to micronutrient availability is both a growing concern, and a growing marketing opportunity for micronutrient suppliers.

Micronutrient Marketing Challenges
Although an increased interest and demand for micronutrients has provided a new, significant marketing opportunity for global manufacturers and distributors, it has not been without its challenges. For example, while just about all high yielding crop production systems require an abundance of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, micronutrient response is much more crop and soil specific. In fact, many crops have not shown a response to micronutrients at low to medium yields because small amounts of these nutrients are usually available to the plants from the soil. However, as yields rise and there is an increased demand for nutrients from the soil, plant deficiencies will often occur unless micronutrients are applied.

Another challenge is the fact that micronutrients are not all created equal. They can be very crop specific, as well as quite soil specific. Globally, there has been significantly more field research with zinc, iron, boron and manganese than with molybdenum, copper and nickel. This is primarily due to the fact that certain important crops are especially sensitive to deficiencies of zinc, iron, boron and manganese.

Zinc is the most common micronutrient deficiency, particularly in countries with lowland rice production, semi-arid areas with calcareous or alkaline soils or where crops are grown on highly weathered and leached or very sandy soils. It has been reported that India, Iraq, Korea, Pakistan, Brazil and Turkey have extensive zinc deficient areas.

The world’s largest known area of boron deficiency in wheat is in the upland cereal growing areas of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. In the U.S., boron deficiencies in occur in soils with low organic matter, low pH and a sandy texture, particularly in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest. In the U.S., boron is used extensively on alfalfa and provides a significant marketing opportunity as yields increase under intensive management.

Potential Markets
All things considered, there is a significant opportunity for marketing micronutrients in a world of higher yields and crop quality.
Reports suggest that direct use of micronutrients to treat deficiencies (often sprayed in combination with agrochemicals) and as additives to NPK fertilizers, either dry or liquid, are the most common uses of micronutrients.

Most developed countries that have the soil testing and plant analysis facilities and resources to detect micronutrient deficiencies in crops and soils have an advantage over developing countries in alleviating deficiencies in crop production. Unfortunately, many developing countries in South Asia, the largest market for micronutrients, still lack the ability to identify many micronutrient deficiencies in a timely manner.

Both liquid and solid forms of micronutrients are available and formulations have been developed for foliar or soil application. Like any major or secondary nutrient source, the water solubility of any micronutrient fertilizer is also very important for effective treatment.
Plants can take up micronutrients from the soil solution and from foliar absorption. However, nutrients taken up through the roots guarantee delivery of micronutrients to all parts of the plant, whereas uptake through the leaves has its limitations. Thus, foliar fertilization may not be sufficient to supply long-term demand for adequate plant growth, particularly at higher yields.

Summary
In today’s global agriculture, there is an emphasis on high yielding, quality crops requiring a balance of major, secondary and micronutrients. This focus has opened new opportunities for the crop nutrient industry because a balance of major, secondary and micronutrients is essential. As a result, micronutrients have become mainstream, an essential and major element of food security.