In order to produce fertilizer, land must be mined for phosphate and other minerals, a process which has the highest ecological footprint of the fertilizer supply chain. Mining land involves disturbing native landscapes and soils, using heavy equipment, altering the pH, and generally uprooting the ecosystems. The result is a loss of topsoil, water erosion, reduced nutrients, organic matter, compaction, and an inability to support previous plant life.
Phosphorous is one of the key three ingredients for plant life, used primarily to grow crops. The U.S. is the third-largest producer of phosphate and the third-biggest phosphorous fertilizer user in the world. However, the environmental impact of mining phosphorous could prove prohibitive to its production, unless successful land reclamation techniques are developed.
Governments are mounting pressure on corporations to reclaim land. For example, Florida requires corporations to return all mined land to productive use by law.
However, to reclaim land and do it well is a data-intensive task, relying on a huge number of inputs at an extremely granular level.
For example, integral to the land reclamation process is stabilizing the pH of the soil so that native wildlife can return. Typically, lime is added to soil to create the appropriate pH levels, however to add exactly the right amount of lime, one must have granular soil data. Given that soil level can vary from mile to mile, this is not an easy feat. As such, the standard practice in Virginia for example, is to apply 2 tons per mile.
A recent study that collected precise soil data in a stretch of land in Virginia, recommended no lime for almost half the pipeline.
With the right data, one could minimize the amount of lime and fertilizer used which has the potential to dramatically cut costs and increase the success of reclamation.