Digital tools needed to help apply fertiliser targets to national level, say stakeholders

The EU's flagship new food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, specifies a target of a 50% reduction of nutrient losses by 2030. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Farmers need access to the latest tools and technologies to enable them to reduce EU-wide nutrient losses and get a clear picture of what is happening on the ground, stakeholders stressed during a recent EURACTIV conference.

EU-wide targets for the reduction of nutrient losses, as outlined in the EU’s flagship new food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, specifies a target of a 50% reduction of losses by 2030, which it says will reduce the use of fertilisers by at least 20%.

This target is at the aggregate level of the EU, meaning that this must now be translated to national level via country-specific targets which, combined, should add up to the total desired reduction across the bloc.

However, this is something agriculture stakeholders consider will be a challenge, highlighting that there is a large disparity across the EU and that setting national baselines requires accurate, comparable data and close monitoring to be able to precisely tell what is happening on the ground.

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Speaking at a recent EURACTIV event on the future of nutrients, Pierre Bascou, director of sustainability and income support at DG AGRI, stressed that the specific situation of each member state will be carefully considered in order to account for disparities between countries in terms of baseline rate, nutrient needs and agronomic realities before establishing national targets in line with the Commission’s ambition.

Pushed on how these targets will be set, Bascou said that ‘gross nutrient balance’ (GNB) will be used to set a baseline for each country and to monitor their progress until 2030.

GNB is calculated as the balance between inputs and outputs of nutrients to the agricultural soil.

It provides an insight into the links between the use of agricultural nutrients, their losses to the environment, and the sustainable use of soil nutrients resources, helping to identify the factors determining the nutrients surplus or deficit and the trends over time.

Bascou confirmed that baselines will be set using data collected from 2017 as the most recent year from which there is real information on the matter.

He emphasised that this is a robust and solid system of measurement approved by the European statistical office.

A reference metadata report on GNB from Eurostat highlights that the indicator generally offers good comparability within countries over time, although warns there may be large regional variations, and that the regional figures should be interpreted with care.

The report also adds that GNB may not in all cases reflect country-specific particularities.

Stakeholders say digitisation key to optimise fertilisers' use

The digitisation of Europe’s agricultural sector will play a crucial role in optimising the use of fertilisers in order to help feed a rising population and simultaneously to decrease their negative environmental footprint.

Digitalisation ‘key enabler’ for farmers

It is for this reason that stakeholders stressed farmers need access to the latest digital tools to allow them to more accurately map and monitor their use at farm level.

Jacob Hansen, Director General at Fertilizers Europe, stressed that you “can’t change what you can’t measure”.

Addressing the EU Commission, he said that he thinks it is “very important they come up with a concept of how we can measure achievements” in order to achieve the “ambitious” objective.

Hansen added that although it is important to use GNB as a measuring tool, farmers need to be able to see results for themselves.

Emphasising the importance of data at the local and regional level, he said that “it’s very important to involve the farming community in this because change happens on the ground,” adding that if farmers can directly compare their situation to their neighbours, this can help create a “positive improvement circle”.

He stressed that there is a wealth of practical tools that farmers can use to achieve this.

“It’s not just about new machinery and satellites,” he said, highlighting a range of smaller tools such as nutrient planning tools and applications on smartphones that can be used by farmers to optimise their system.

Oana Neagu, Director of COPA-COGECA, concurred, saying that such tools can help farmers find the best solutions adapted to their specific needs and their local conditions, but that it’s now a question of how to make these available for farmers, especially for small and medium farms.

In particular, Neagu highlighted access to broadband as a key issue, saying that 50% of rural areas don’t have access to high-speed broadband and that this issue must be addressed.

It is for this reason that the Commission has proposed to introduce a farm sustainability tool for the use of nutrients on a mandatory basis, Bascou said.

This digital tool is designed to help ensure wide adoption of nutrient management plans to help farmers in order for them to optimise the use of nutrients.

“The promotion of digitisation at the farm level is seen for us as a key enabler, allowing farmers to manage farms much better, and to be much more efficient in the use of the production factors of inputs,” said Bascou.

“This is why in the proposal for the future CAP the Commission has put a special focus and emphasis on the promotion of digitisation, and also in the context of COVID recovery and resilience funds,” he added.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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