Feeding the world’s growing population

New Zealand’s reputation as a quality food producer is growing.

Optimising food production

Over the next 50 years farmers around the world will need to produce more food than has been grown over the past 10,000 years.

Best use from a limited resource

Fertiliser helps farmers produce food efficiently by replenishing the soil. But fertiliser needs to be used responsibly.

Responsible and sustainable nutrient management

The Fertiliser Association invests in research and tools to ensure farm profitability while minimising nutrient losses to the environment.

The Fertiliser Association of New Zealand promotes and encourages responsible and scientifically-based nutrient management.

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Fertiliser use in NZ

Since modern agricultural practice began, New Zealand farmers have been supplementing the soil's natural nutrient level with fertiliser to improve the land's production potential. See below for the latest data on the use and management of fertiliser in New Zealand.

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Nitrogen use

Most nitrogen used in New Zealand is applied to dairy and cropping farms and a limited number of drystock farms. Urea is the dominant form of nitrogen fertiliser used. Prior to the 1990s, pastoral systems were almost solely reliant on clover to fix nitrogen. The figures below are in thousand tonnes nitrogen.

Data source: Fertiliser Association

Overall, nitrogen use has increased over time due to the intensification of dairy farm systems in combination with an increased area in dairying. However, production methods have improved and the emphasis on environmental accountability is increasing. This has led to marked improvements in production per unit of nitrogen applied. Improvements in efficient use of fertiliser and other nutrient sources are likely to continue as research and development evolves. Between 2020 and 2022 there has been a 12% drop in nitrogen use.

Phosphorus use

New Zealand pastoral soils are naturally low in phosphorus and sulphur. Both these elements are provided by superphosphate fertiliser. New Zealand began importing phosphate fertiliser in 1867, with its first shipment of guano from the Pacific Islands. Superphosphate manufacturing commenced near Dunedin in 1881. Today, it is manufactured at five sites. The figures below are in thousand tonnes phosphorus.

Data source: Fertiliser Association

Phosphorus use has declined since a peak from 2003 to 2005. This reflects the impact of a significant price rise in 2008/09 and economic pressures, particularly for sheep and beef farmers receiving lower returns at that time. The moderate usage also reflects the increasing focus on nutrient budgets. This involves using fertiliser more strategically than ever before, as farmers learn how to maintain productivity while using less.

Potassium use

Potassium is an essential nutrient for keeping pastures productive and maintaining their legume component. Potassium fertiliser is required to replace the losses that occur through livestock urine and dung, leaching, transport to farm tracks and yards, and sale of meat, milk and wool.

Data source: Fertiliser Association

Lime use

Data source: Ministry for the Environment, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory

Leaching, decomposing organic matter, erosion and plant uptake of essential nutrients can all contribute to the acidification of soils over time. Soil pH affects nutrient availability. Plants are able to use nutrients more efficiently in soils with the right pH. Applying lime or dolomite restores the soil pH. Legumes are especially sensitive to low pH and growth will decline as the soil becomes more acidic. This graph shows how lime use has declined significantly since a peak in 2002. The figures above are in thousand tonnes product.

Percentage of urea coated with urease inhibitor

Data source: Fertiliser Association

As urea dissolves, it goes through a number of chemical changes. The conversion of urea to the ammonium and then nitrate forms of nitrogen, can result in significant losses to the atmosphere as ammonia. Urea fertiliser coated with a urease inhibitor has been sold in New Zealand since 2001. Use has increased significantly over the past decade. This is a positive step for the environment as it reduces volatilisation losses of ammonia from urea use, maximises nitrogen available for uptake and contributes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

Fertiliser use by farm system

Nitrogen is mainly used on dairy and cropping farms, and a small number of dry stock properties. Phosphate is used across all farm systems.

Data source: Stats NZ 2017 Agricultural census

National emissions from nitrogen fertiliser in kt CO2-eq

Data source: Nitrogen fertiliser: based on industry estimates using New Zealand's National Inventory emission factors

In 2020, greenhouse gas emissions associated with Nitrogen fertiliser represented approximately 6% of all agricultural emissions. Overall nitrogen fertiliser use has dropped since 2020, resulting in a 12% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with nitrogen fertiliser.

Data source: Ministry for the Environment, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory

Emissions per tonne of fertiliser nitrogen in tonnes of CO2-eq

Data source: Ministry for Primary Industries

The New Zealand Greenhouse Gas Inventory calculates the emissions for different forms of nitrogen fertiliser based on agreed emission factors. The primary source of emissions is nitrous oxide lost directly following application. A small proportion of the nitrogen applied is volatilised to the atmosphere as indirect losses by denitrification. Further losses occur following leaching. The use of urea-based fertiliser also results in direct CO2 emissions.

Nutrient management

17,103 farms now have formal nutrient planning documentation in place - either a nutrient budget, a nutrient management plan or a Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) document.

Data source: Stats NZ 2017 Agricultural Census

Data Source: NMACP Ltd

The Nutrient Management Adviser Certification Programme (NMACP) is managed by the primary sector as an industry-wide certification programme targeted at those who provide nutrient management advice to New Zealand farmers.

NMACP aims to ensure farmers get nutrient management advice of the highest standard. Relevant qualifications and experience are essential. Once certified, advisers need to undertake continuing professional development each year. As at September 2022, 231 advisers were certified.

The certification programme is financially supported by the Fertiliser Association, Beef + Lamb NZ and DairyNZ and the management board includes representatives from NZIPIM.

Where do certified advisers work?

Certified advisers work in a wide range of organisations. These include fertiliser companies, consultancy firms, regional councils, food processing companies, farm advisory organisations and universities.

Certified advisers are expected to demonstrate their understanding of nutrient cycling in agricultural systems and use the right information to provide sound farm system advice. Auditing was introduced to the Nutrient Management Certification Programme in 2017 as part of building the value of the certification programme. Advisers are required to submit reports for auditing as a requirement of continuing professional development.

Fertiliser quality

The Fertmark programme was established by the Fertiliser Quality Council in 1992 to give New Zealand farmers confidence in the quality of fertilisers and the associated advertising. Products receive the Fertmark Quality Tick if they meet independently audited quality standards presented in "The Code of Practice for the Sale of Fertiliser in New Zealand".

Data source: Fertiliser Quality Council

Managing contaminants

Fertilisers are essential for viable, economic production in agricultural and horticultural farms. Phosphate fertilisers are derived from phosphate rock, which contains trace levels of a range of elements. Some trace elements like zinc are essential for the health of animals and plants. Others are not. If they occur at excessive levels in the soils, they can have an adverse impact on the environment or human health.

Global and New Zealand research indicates that cadmium and fluorine are the elements in phosphate rock most likely to accumulate in agricultural soils over many years of phosphate fertiliser use. There are no indications for concern from the levels of contaminants currently in New Zealand soil.

Cadmium concentration in weekly samples of fertiliser for dispatch, collected from the main manufacturing locations. The graph summarises 7,171 samples, showing monthly median values, the overall median, the 90% confidence band, and the voluntary limit of 280 mg/kg P.
Data: Ballance Agri-Nutrients & Ravensdown, FQC QCONZ data

Independent auditing monitors the cadmium content of fertiliser against a voluntary limit for cadmium. Monitoring demonstrates that the industry is operating at levels much better than the voluntary limit.

Dietary exposure to cadmium as measured in MPI's Total Diet Study 

The New Zealand Total Diet Study is a nationwide survey of foods sold in New Zealand. The study is undertaken by MPI. The study aims to assess New Zealanders' exposure to certain food contaminants, based on a typical diet. The 2016 study involved the analysis of 1056 food samples, which were assessed for a range of potential contaminants.

Data source: MPI Total Diet Study 2016

Results show dietary cadmium exposures have largely remained consistent over time, and the chart reflects the observation that children typically have a higher food intake per kg body weight than adults. There is no evidence of increased risk, with cadmium levels in food remaining well below World Health Organisation recommended guidelines.

The Fertiliser Association of New Zealand and Dairy NZ funded development of the Nutrient Management Adviser Certification Programme (NMACP). This industry-wide certification aims to ensure that advisers have the learning, experience and capability to give sound nutrient advice.

Find out more

14 May 2023


The New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research has published a paper titled Nitrogen fertiliser use in grazed pasture-based systems in New Zealand. The research paper was commissioned by the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand and written by AgReserch senior scientist Colin Gray.

The paper can be found here.

30 April 2023

Commercial fertilisers have long been critical to viable economic production in Aotearoa New Zealand’s agriculture and horticulture sectors – starting in 1867 with the import of 459 tonnes of phosphorus-rich Pacific Island bird and bat dung. The Fertiliser Association of New Zealand marks its 75th anniversary in 2023. This article looks back at some of the history of fertiliser use in New Zealand.

In 1880 the first shipment of superphosphate was imported into New Zealand likely by William Ivey, Director of Canterbury Agricultural College based at Lincoln. Ivey demonstrated the power of superphosphate to enhance production in New Zealand pastoral soils that are naturally low in phosphorus and sulphur. The shipment probably came from Adelaide, Australia, which had the first superphosphate manufacturing plant in the Southern Hemisphere.

To encourage domestic production, the government announced grants for firms that could produce large amounts of sulphuric acid for use in superphosphate manufacture. In 1881 the first NZ production was underway, by Kempthorne Prosser & Co of Burnside, Dunedin, using livestock bones from a nearby abattoir. Kempthorne Prosser went on to construct further superphosphate plants in Auckland, Christchurch and Whanganui and to become New Zealand’s major superphosphate supplier, until the 1970s.

A major game changer came in the late 1890s when Henry Denson, a cargo officer for the Pacific Islands Company, picked up a strange-looking rock on Nauru, and went on to use it as a door stop in the company’s Sydney office.

Albert Ellis from the company’s phosphate division spotted it and tested it - rather against Denson’s wishes as he was convinced it was petrified wood. It turned out to be the highest quality phosphate ore. Further investigation identified rich sources on both Nauru and neighbouring Banaba. Rock was also mined on Christmas Island.

The British Phosphate Commission was established by the British, Australian and New Zealand governments in 1920 to manage the phosphate resources in Nauru and Banaba, largely for the benefit of Australian and New Zealand farmers. Management of the Christmas Island rock was taken over by the Commission from 1949.

The reliable supply of rich deposits of phosphate rock from the Pacific saw superphosphate use become standard practice. The importance of phosphate to New Zealand and Australian agriculture became obvious when Japanese occupation of the islands resulted in the need for government rationing of phosphate fertiliser in New Zealand.

Over time, the Commission was seen as a product of the colonial era and became controversial. Although a percentage of revenue was returned to the Nauruan people, an Australian Commission of Inquiry in 1980 noted the Commission and its shareholders did not adapt quickly enough to the passing of the colonial era. Nauru became a sovereign independent nation in 1968 and in 1970 its newly formed government purchased the phosphate rights, bringing an economic boost to the new nation. Mining on Banaba ended in 1979 but in Nauru continues at a small scale.

In the wake of WWII, the first fertiliser co-operatives – the Southland Co-operative Phosphate Company and the Bay of Plenty Fertiliser Co-operative – were founded. The New Zealand Fertiliser Manufacturers’ Research Association, focused on research for industry good purposes, was established in 1947 – the name was changed to the Fertiliser Association in 2012.

Government and fertiliser companies supported the Association’s work. In 1950 a research site was established in South Auckland with laboratory facilities and library. The site housed a working scaled-down model of a superphosphate manufacturing plant.

Former Association chair Arthur Duncan worked for Dunedin-based Dominion Fertilisers from the 1960s and ultimately became group marketing manager for Ravensdown.

“The early focus of the association was on methods for assessing phosphate rock from different sources for the manufacture of superphosphate fertiliser, and also for research on manufacturing processes,” recalls Mr Duncan.

“It consisted of a mix of representatives from industry, government departments, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) and universities, working together. Initially there was one very large committee, but this evolved to be two. One addressed the manufacturing processes, and the second addressed use and application.”

The manufacturing research papers with detailed technical findings were presented at the New Zealand Fertiliser Manufacturers’ Research Association Technical Conferences from 1957 through until the mid-1970s. Addressing wider nutrient management issues the Association continued with its conferences and symposiums into the early 2000s. The Association still holds these technical papers in its library.

Behind the scenes, throughout this period there were many changes taking place across the industry. In 1977 Kempthorne Prosser announced plans to buy Dominion Fertilisers. Fearing a monopoly, South Canterbury, Otago and North Otago farmers led a ‘gumboot revolution’, resulting in the formation of Ravensdown which mounted a successful takeover of Kempthorne Prosser.

In 1984, under Rogernomics, removal of price controls and government subsidies on fertiliser was initiated, resulting in further alliances between fertiliser companies and support operations. The Fertiliser Association’s research centre was closed, with focus moving to commissioning rather than conducting research.

Industry acquisitions and mergers continued through the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the Bay of Plenty Fertiliser company evolving into a second large co-operative – becoming Ballance Agri-Nutrients in 2001.

Peter Macdougall chaired the board of Southland Co-operative Phosphate Company and represented the South Island on the board of the BoP Fertiliser Company after the two companies merged. He remembers the 80s and 90s as “challenging times” but says decisions made by the sector then shaped the industry we have today.

“There was an awful lot of politics behind the scenes. But what emerged was a very efficient industry. New Zealand fertiliser companies looked at what was happening in Europe and said, ‘We have to be ahead of the game’. An example was seeing The Code of Practice for Fertiliser Use developed by the Fertiliser Association, around targeted, efficient use of fertiliser.

“The sector also built very strong relationships with overseas suppliers of phosphate rock, sulphur and potash that still serve it very well today. We ended up with two farmer-owned co-operatives of similar size, both doing a really good job for the New Zealand farmers who own them. If we had just one major fertiliser company, I don’t think we’d have the good choice of products we have today.”

Another impact of the removal of subsidies was a spike in fertiliser prices, resulting in many farmers reducing phosphate applications.

“By all accounts, those were fraught times,” says Fertiliser Association executive manager Greg Sneath “The impact on farms that withdrew application was significant, reducing livestock capacity. Once they began using fertiliser again, it took several years to build up production.

“People are mindful of not doing that again. During the 2007-2008 global monetary crisis it was again very difficult but farmers focused on keeping their fertiliser budgets and maintaining soil fertility as much as they could. We are seeing some of this challenge today with high prices in response to geo-political pressures. Today farmers and growers face high costs for fertilisers, but also increased regulatory controls to address environmental risk.”

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