This article is part of our special report The future of fertilisers in Europe.
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.
Jérôme Bandry, secretary-general of the European association for the agricultural machinery industry, told EURACTIV.com that new technologies could offer a unique opportunity to better manage fertilisers to feed the world.
“With more people to feed and more pressure on the process of growing food the answer is more mechanisation and digitisation,” he said.
“We truly believe we have an opportunity in precision farming techniques if we have trust in the way the data is used and overcome some technical hurdles.”
In an effort to push towards a decarbonised economy and address rising nutrition needs, the EU fertilisers industry published its 2030 vision on 21 November.
The industry’s vision is based on the optimisation of the fertiliser use and production.
Regarding the fertilisers’ application, the industry focuses on the enhancement of soil knowledge, with the help of new technologies such as GPS as well as targeted advice.
Industry understands that with the gradual digitisation of the EU farming sector, farmers will be able to measure the soil nutrient content and apply fertilisers only when and where needed.
This will result in better plant growth as well as a positive environmental impact.
Tasos Haniotis, a senior official at the European Commission’s agriculture directorate, said the best definition of precision farming he has ever heard came from a farmer in Greece:
“Up to now, when we jumped on the tractor the work started, now when we jump on the tractor the work has ended.”
Haniotis explained that EU agriculture develops based on knowledge and finds a way to bring together economy and the environment.
With digitisation, Haniotis said, the same farmer “reduced chemical use when it comes to fertilisers by 20%, increased yields 20% and took photos of happily birds coming in”.
Franc Bogovič, an EU lawmaker from the European People’s Party (EPP) who has pushed for the “smart villages” project, said knowledge to reduce the use of fertilisers would primarily benefit the environment.
“Precision farming tools and smart villages will make it easier to achieve traceability of fertilisers,” he told EURACTIV, adding that particularly the smart villages concept will help more efficiently spread knowledge at a local level and trace agricultural inputs.
“The continuation of intensive farming in the next 20 years is simply not possible,” he emphasised.
The European Commission’s proposals for the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provide a mandatory nutrient management tool for farmers aiming to improve water quality, reduce ammonia and nitrous oxide levels.
The OECD says this is a “win-win” situation, as it will result in a more economically efficient management of inputs and in cutting emissions.
The EU fertilisers’ report highlights the role of new generations in the farming sector, especially when it comes to the use of new technologies.
Jannes Maes, president of the EU young farmers’ association (CEJA), said young farmers stand ready to provide their knowledge but also get further educated.
“The biggest challenge is the regulatory pressure which creates uncertainty for the next decade. Without technology, the vision for knowledge in smart application of fertilisers won’t be implemented,” he warned.
Environmental organisations, such as WWF, welcome the industry’s ambition for more precise nutrition. However, they warn that this could be only applicable to large farms and not smallholders.
Moreover, WWF’s Andrea Kohl said that the fertiliser industry needs to change its business model and focus on greater sustainability and agroecological practices.
Ammonia and circular economy
The report also highlighted the role of fertiliser industry in the circular economy and the importance of ammonia in decarbonisation.
Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, director of DG energy, noted that the EU aims at decarbonisation in 2050 (40% in 2030, 60% in 2040, 80 to 95% in 2050) through energy efficiency, renewables, the development of low carbon energy carriers as well as ETS.
He said that by 2050 we need to move towards a much higher sector integration. “The fertiliser industry can decarbonise by using green electricity, carbon-free hydrogen and application of Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.”
Ammonia, which constitutes the basic building block of all fertilisers, is a very energy-intensive product obtained by the reaction of nitrogen from air and hydrogen.
A big opportunity to decarbonise the industry and society is to create a high quantity of green energy from renewables such as wind and solar. However, as renewables do not provide constant input, the use of green energy is directly linked to the ability to store it properly.
One way to store energy is to convert it into hydrogen and thus move towards the so-called hydrogen economy, where hydrogen is used as an energy vector.
Since ammonia has a high energy content and is easy to transport, it has a huge potential to store hydrogen, i.e. clean energy.
Considering this potential of ammonia as a means to store hydrogen and thus energy, the fertiliser industry should be able to have a positive effect on the environment by helping to decarbonise energy supply and making it more reliant on renewables, the report added.
Antti Peltomäki, deputy director-general of DG GROW, told EURACTIV that ammonia together with hydrogen could play a leading role in decarbonising our energy system.
“In order to decarbonise our industry we need carbon-free electricity. Either directly or in the form of hydrogen or carbon capture, use and storage,” he said.
“What Fertilisers Europe presented today in terms of food and energy are in line with our priorities for the future of food.
“With precision practices, farmers can use nutrients in the best possible way. We need food from our soil without spilling our soil,” he emphasised.
For professor Ad van Wijk, the fertiliser industry has to work together through joint ventures to have a value chain of producing electricity hydrogen and ammonia and ship it.
“That’s the way to bring down the cost. Otherwise, we have all these intermediate sales and everybody has to make a profit,” he added.