This article is part of our special report Tackling ammonia emissions from agriculture.
No rocket science, or even innovation, is needed to reduce ammonia emissions from fertilisers, the European fertiliser industry boss Jacob Hansen told EURACTIV.com in an interview. As an example, he pointed to the use of nitrate fertilisers instead of urea.
“For the fertilisers’ part, we don’t need rocket science but we need to do the right thing. So, the first thing is the product itself, because there are different types of fertilisers. If you use urea, you emit ammonia because it’s an ammonia-based fertiliser,” Hansen said.
Agriculture generates around 94% of all ammonia emissions in the EU, the vast majority of which comes from livestock excreta, while mineral fertiliser application accounts for approximately 20%.
Hansen explained that many efforts have already been made in terms of both animal husbandry and fertilisers to reduce ammonia emissions. But when it comes to the 20% from mineral fertilisers, more contributions could be made, he said.
“If you use nitrate fertilisers, ammonium nitrate or calcium ammonium nitrate, one has few emissions of ammonia. One way to improve ammonia emissions from fertilisers is to use nitrate fertilisers instead of urea. That would immediately reduce emissions by up to 60%,” Fertilisers Europe chief emphasised.
Considering that nitrogen is essential for crop production and healthy soil, farmers apply nitrogen in several fertiliser forms, ranging from anhydrous ammonia (NH3) direct application to Urea and Urea ammonium nitrate solutions, all potentially harmful when applied in excessive quantities.
As far as the application is concerned, Hansen said it was not so important for nitrates, which is not the case for urea.
“There are two things you can do: one is to incorporate urea because the problem is, if you spread it on the surface, this is where you have the ammonia emissions. If you incorporate it into the soil directly, then you have fewer emissions. But this is not new technology; this is what I mean by saying no rocket-science is needed to reduce ammonia emissions from fertilisers.”
Urea contains an NH-molecular combination [CO(NH2)2] just like ammonium (NH4), while nitrate (NO3) has no recognisable NH-molecular combination.
“Of course, it takes more effort on the side of the farmers, but this can also be done. The other option is to use coated urea or inhibitors. Those technologies also allow a further emission reduction,” he said.
Doing the right thing
According to Hansen, the fertilisers-related costs will not significantly increase.
“What we have to understand is also that if ammonia is emitted into the air, it means that ammonia does not go to the plant and, therefore, the farmer does not get anything out of the price he paid for ammonia that goes into the air.”
He explained that doing the right thing might be a bit more complicated, but farmers need to think how to use fertilisers in a better way and choose the right product.
However, he predicted that the really big discussion among the member states will be how to deal with the animals, how to deal with manure, and how to reduce emissions from animal housing.
“This will be the most difficult discussion because this is where farmers are sensitive, as animal production is an important part.”