Opportunities and Challenges of Water-soluble Fertilizer (WSF) under China’s Agricultural Reform

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Opportunities and Challenges of Water-soluble Fertilizer (WSF) under China’s Agricultural ReformChina uses 6% of the world's water resources, 9% of the world’s farmland and 30% of the world’s chemical fertilizers to produce 26% of the agricultural products in the world. China’s annual irrigation water consumption is 360 billion tons per year but there is still an input gap of 30 billion tons. The agricultural output per water consumption was only 1 kg per ton, half the efficiency that the US and Israel achieved.

Despite China leading the world in agrochemical use, with an annual chemical fertilizer consumption of 54 million tons, the average utilization efficiency is merely 30%, about 20 percent lower than in developed countries.

The "high consumption but low efficiency" pattern in agricultural production has brought about a huge waste of resources and increased levels of environmental pollution, not to mention the fact that it has become one of the greatest bottlenecks constraining agricultural development. In the "National Strategic Plan for Agricultural Revitalization through Quality Enhancement (2018-2022)”, China planned to improve its fertilizer utilization efficiency to 41% by 2022, which us expected to have encouraging effects on certain agricultural inputs such as water-soluble fertilizers (WSF).

Imperative Fertilization and Irrigation Integration

The water-saving irrigation strategy was first put forward in 2004 and has been repeatedly emphasized by the “N01 Central Document” for 12 consecutive years. In 2011, China’s NATESC (National Agricultural Technology Extension and Service Center) identified fertilization and irrigation integration as the number one agricultural practice to be deployed nationwide. In 2015, MoA (now known as the MoARA) issued its ambitious “Action Plan for the Zero-growth of Chemical Fertilizer Uses by 2020” which means 5.33 million hectares of the farmland will be treated with an integration of fertilization and irrigation systems and the total treated area will reach 10 million hectares by 2020:

  • 1 million hectares of maize and potato area will be added in northeast China;
  • 1.33 million hectares of maize, potato and cotton area will be upgraded in northwest China;
  • 1.33 million hectares of wheat and maize area will be treated with sprinkle irrigation;
  • 0.67 million hectares of maize and potato area will be treated by using rainwater-harvesting irrigation;
  • 0.67 million hectares of vegetable and fruit installations will be treated with trickle irrigation;

Forecast of China's WSF Market

Notwithstanding water-soluble fertilizer (WSF) accounting for only 1.6-2.5% of Chinese fertilizer market, it is estimated China’s WSF market will grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of around 6% in coming years and the market value will reach to 58.9 billion RMB by 2022. Top markets at a provincial level are Xinjiang, Hebei, Shandong, Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang:

Current and Forecasted Irrigation Area and Irrigation Type of the Top 5 Chinese Provinces with Water-saving Irrigation

 

Area Treated with Water-saving Technology(hectare)

sprinkle irrigation

micro irrigation

pipe irrigation

 

2017

2020

2017

2020

2017

2020

2017

2020

Xinjiang

3,272,058

4,271,058

36,630

64,602

3,118,212

3,120,210

117,216

1,086,246

Hebei

2,817,180

3,483,180

193,140

569,430

108,558

258,408

2,515,482

2,655,342

Shandong

2,123,208

2,755,908

139,194

678,654

73,260

119,880

1,910,754

1,957,374

Inner Mongolia

1,673,658

2,339,658

503,496

503,496

617,382

817,182

552,114

1,018,314

Heilongjiang

1,500,498

1,833,498

1,403,262

1,426,572

86,580

366,300

10,656

40,626

Sub-total of the Top 5

11,386,602

11,386,602

14,683,302

14,683,302

3,242,754

3,242,754

4,681,980

6,757,902

National Total

17,885,430

17,905,410

24,565,410

24,565,410

6,418,242

6,418,242

6,639,354

11,507,814

Volume and Value Extrapolation of Chinese Water-soluble Market

 

Xinjiang

National

Application rate(kg/hectare)

750

WSF average price(Yuan/ton)

3,194.31

 

2017

2020

2017

2020

Volume(000 ton)

2,732.8

3,206.5

15,255.1

18,442.5

Value(000 Yuan)

8,729,304

10,242,555

48,729,617.8

58,911,062.2

Main Challenges and Prospects
Under Chinese fertilizer regulations, WSFs must be registered at the MoARA under mandatory generic names including primary nutrient WSF, micronutrient WSF, secondary nutrient WSF, amino-acid WSF, humic-acid WSF and organic WSF (alginic acid, chitin, ploy aspartic acid and other organic ingredients).

WSFs need to comply with a series of quality specifications, which were promulgated in the form of agricultural standards:

  • NY 1107-2010 Water-soluble fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium
  • NY 1429-2010 Water-soluble fertilizers containing amino-acids
  • NY 1106-2010 Water-soluble fertilizers containing humic-acids 
  • NY 1428-2010 Water-soluble fertilizers containing micronutrients
  • NY 2266-2012 Water-soluble fertilizers containing calcium and magnesium

Notably, some of the quality indicators might be unable to accommodate the integrated fertilization and irrigation practices widely popularized in China nowadays. For example, the limit of water-insolubles for WSF is 5%, but excessive insolubles can cause blockage in irrigation equipment and/or affect fertilization and the stable operation of the irrigation system. The characteristics that fertilization and irrigation compatible WSF and common WSF share and differ in can be summarized as follows:

Feature

fertilization and irrigation compatible WSF

common WSF

Formulation

Powder, granules and liquid

Powder, granules and liquid

Solubility

Instantly and completely soluble and the solubility should be greater than 99.5% to prevent blockage in pipes and droppers.

A small quantity(less than 5%) of insoluble can be tolerable

Application method

Spraying and trickling with water by using irrigation equipment

Flooding irrigation or directly put in soil

Raw material

Industrial grade

Mostly  agricultural grade and industrial-grade materials are seldom used

Price

Medium and high

Medium and low

Technical nature

High

Low

Most Chinese WSF producers are specialized in nutrient and crop selection but know little about the compatibility with fertilization irrigation integration. Additionally, the irrigation equipment is usually poorly designed and manufactured, which results in a weak combination of fertilization and irrigation.

WSFs are comparatively more expensive than conventional fertilizers and their main application to date has been limited to greenhouse vegetables, fruits and ornamental plants. As farmland-use rights have been gradually transferred from small growers to large growers, WSFs and irritation equipment have become more affordable to stable crop growers.

It is increasingly obvious that the popularization of WSF will have a significant role in increasing rural income and agricultural efficiency. But It is even more urgent that agriculture, industrial and market authorities develop an impeccable regulatory and standardized system in fertilizer registration, quality assurance and market surveillance. 

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