The review of the European Union’s Fertilisers Regulation will promote innovative products such as biostimulants, in an effort to help agriculture take the turn of the circular economy.
The centrepiece of the EU’s planned transition to “circular agriculture” is the planned revision of the 2003 Fertiliser Regulation.
Until now, it was narrowly focused on mineral fertilisers – mainly phosphates – which are imported from outside Europe. This leaves many new types of organic and waste-based fertilisers outside of its scope, and therefore without access to the EU single market.
The new regulation could cut the EU’s phosphate imports by a third, from six million tonnes per year to four million, according to Commission estimates.
“Our farmers are using fertilisers manufactured from imported resources or from energy-intensive processes although our industry could valorise these bio-wastes in recycled nutrients,” stated Jyrki Katainen, the European Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness. “This regulation will help us turn problems into opportunities for farmers and businesses,” he said in March.
In March 2016, the Commission put forward a legislative proposal opening the door for “fertilising products”, including biostimulants among others.
The executive says it wants to “create new market opportunities for innovative companies while at the same time reducing waste, energy consumption and environmental damage”.
In a recent interview with euractiv.com, VVD MEP Jan Huitema (ALDE) said the Fertilisers’ Regulation needed to change in order to make room for greener products.
“If we make legislation now, we should take into account that the world is changing, that new innovations are coming, and we should always take that into consideration,” he stressed.
What are biostimulants?
Fertilising products are used to improve plant growth, enabling higher crop yields.
Plant biostimulants can be sourced from renewable resources and industrial wastes like plant and seaweed extracts, amino acids and humic acids. They may also contain soil microorganisms.
Biostimulation is a complementary process to crop nutrition and crop protection, as it acts only on the plant’s vigour, and does not have any direct impact on pests or disease.
Biostimulants encourage natural processes inside plants, like root development. In doing so, they help plants use nutrients and water more efficiently and enable them to become more resilient.
Supporters claim they will help EU farmers meet resource efficiency goals for circular agriculture. The plants will extract the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, fostering energy savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they argue.
According to the European Biostimulant Industry Council (EBIC), countries from the Mediterranean region – such as Italy, Spain and France – are currently leading the market for biostimulants production and use at the EU level.
EBIC estimates that biostimulants sales in the EU reached approximately €578 million in 2015, with an additional €250 million in exports. Analysts predict the European market will be worth €1 billion by 2019 while the compound annual growth rate of the biostimulants industry ranges between 12 and 13%.
Referring to a research conducted in 2013, EBIC told EURACTIV that the efficiency of fertilizers was increased by 5-25% when biostimulants were applied:
“If biostimulants were applied across the entire EU and minimal efficiency gains of 5% were achieved, it would mean 550,000 fewer tonnes of nitrogen lost to the environment per year and a cost savings of some €165 million for farmers.”
Regarding safety, substances used in biostimulants are regulated under the REACH chemicals framework, and as long as there is currently no equivalent pan-European framework for microorganisms, the way microorganisms are evaluated differs from one member state to another.
Cost of non-Europe
EBIC’s Vice-President Paul Mullins told EURACTIV that the lack of a single market for biostimulants increased the costs of innovation and slowed down the introduction of new products.
“It also increases uncertainty, which discourages investors,” he stressed, adding that the availability of biostimulants varies greatly from one EU member state to another.
“There is an uneven playing field for EU farmers who must fulfil the same consumer demands for abundant, high-quality food produced sustainably, but they do not have access to the same tools,” Mullins said.
Greenpeace noted that it had no position on the issue, while IFOAM said it was currently working on a policy paper.