HomeAgri NewsFertasa symposium explores soil fertility and plant nutrition

Fertasa symposium explores soil fertility and plant nutrition

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

If boron is reclassified as a toxin within the next year, it will have a catastrophic impact on South Africa’s agricultural sector.

Martin Botha, who is the managing director of Nutrico and a board member of Fertasa, gave this answer during a question-and-answer session at the Fertiliser Association of Southern Africa (Fertasa) Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition Symposium. The event recently took place at the CSSR International Convention Centre in Pretoria.

Botha made the comment on the back of a letter that the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) circulated on 14 April 2022. The letter stated the DALRRD’s intent to prohibit the use of active ingredients and their formulations that meet the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) criteria of carcinogenicity, mutagenicity and reproductive toxicity (CMR) by 1 June 2024.

The classification of boron as a CMR will consequently mean that producers will no longer be able to buy fertilisers which contain boron. It would have a negative impact on the country’s economy, Botha said. “This will not only be applicable to agriculture, but also to all of South Africa.”

Importance of boron

Renowned soil scientist and industry consultant, Dr Koos Bornman, gave a talk on the impact it would have on several South African crops if boron was eliminated from the picture. These crops include maize, wheat, canola, soya bean, sunflower, sugarcane, potatoes, citrus, table grapes, tomatoes and citrus.

In a study that was conducted, boron deficiency caused malformations and decreased yield in plants in all instances. 

Dr Pieter Haumann, CEO of Fertasa addressed attendees during a panel discussion. Seated (from left to right) are the rest of the panellists: Annemarie van der Merwe, a soil scientist from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, Prof Maarten Everaert, assistant professor at the Soil Science and Soil Fertility Department at the University of Leuven in Belgium, Dr Koos Bornman, independent soil consultant, Kobus van Zyl, senior agricultural adviser at Omnia Fertilizer, Prof Michael McLaughlin, a professor at the School of Agriculture Food and Wine, and director of the University of Adelaide Fertiliser Technology Research Centre, Dr Chris Schmidt from Kynoch Fertilizer and Prof Patrick Brown, a distinguished professor from the University of California, Davis.

However, when boron was reintroduced, all crops saw a definite increase in water use efficiency as well as improved physiology. Additionally, with regard to market acceptance, the addition of boron to table grapes increased the likelihood of market acceptance by 50%.

Dr Bornman said producers should not underestimate the positive impact that boron could have on a crop. “You can improve your citrus yield threefold just by improving your boron.”

Dr Bornman added that – among other things – boron was crucial for root elongation, water use efficiency, supporting disease resistance and ensuring pollen viability.

“The extent of boron deficiency as a micronutrient in worldwide crops is second only to zinc and the situation is worsening with boron fertiliser demand increasing exponentially and supply dwindling.”


During his session, Prof Patrick Brown, a distinguished professor from the University of California, Davis, explained the role of microbial and non-microbial stimulants in aiding crop growth.

“The highest productivity and most resilient plant systems on earth are not agricultural crops, they are natural ecosystems,” Prof Brown said. “The reason for this is the fact that every resource is used efficiently and timeously. Every change in the environment – opportunity or threat – has a species that can respond, and partnerships between plants, microbes and animals are for mutual benefit.”

While very few studies have truly shown that biostimulants would have a positive impact on crop production under normal circumstances, Prof Brown said that there was a definite improvement in plants that were stressed and received biostimulants. “Biostimulants influence cropping system resilience by enabling plants to tolerate stress more effectively, utilising nutrients and water efficiently and favourably altering the plant’s microbiome.”

Read more about regenerative agriculture and fertilisers.

Prof Brown said while some biostimulants did not work, a few were extremely effective. “It is important, however, to note that there is not a single bio-stimulant product that would work under all conditions. It needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

Artificial intelligence

Dr Pauline Welikhe, a research scientist at Phospholutions in Colorado, in the United States spoke about how artificial intelligence (AI) could help producers with monitoring fertiliser model P input-output relationships in complex agricultural systems.

Dr Welikhe’s research indicated that AI’s ability to predict the efficiency of phosphorus (P) applications was highly accurate (0,99).

“AI-based systems can also help to identify sources of pollution, such as factories and agricultural runoff. This information can be used to take action to reduce or eliminate the source of pollution, thus protecting the environment.”

However, AI does not come without challenges. Welikhe said AI needs significant upfront investment in hardware and software. Furthermore, the AI needs to be trained, which takes up substantial man-hours.

According to her, there is not necessarily enough data available from which AI can learn and understand a specific agricultural problem properly. – Susan Marais, Plaas Media

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