Fertiliser industry vows to feed one ‘extra Germany’ per year

While fertilisers are essential in boosting the plant growth and crop nutrition, there is also an environmental impact that needs to be addressed. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report The future of fertilisers in Europe.

The EU fertilisers industry published its 2030 vision on Wednesday (21 November), stressing the need to optimise fertiliser use across Europe and improve production in order to adjust to the principles of the circular economy and feed a growing world population.

The ‘Feeding Life 2030’ report, seen by EURACTIV and due to be presented today, is the  result of consultations among several stakeholders in the agri-food sector, ranging from industry representatives and academia to NGOs and farmers.

The objective of the report is to set a long-term vision for the industry by 2030. According to United Nations projections, the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion in 2050.

“This represents an annual increase of approximately 80 million people. In other words, we need to find a way to feed an extra Germany every year,” the report said, adding this won’t be an easy task as expanding cities and new infrastructure eat up prime farmland.

“The world will therefore need to farm more efficiently to produce enough food,” the report noted.

While fertilisers are essential in boosting plant growth and crop nutrition, there is also an environmental impact that needs to be addressed.

Agricultural air pollution comes mainly in the form of ammonia, which enters the air as gases from fertilisation products which are prone to volatilisation.

In total, 94 % of all ammonia emissions in the EU result from agriculture, with livestock excreta representing the lion’s share. Greenpeace estimates it at almost 80% of the total, while mineral fertiliser application accounts for approximately 20%.

Tackling ammonia emissions from agriculture

Agriculture generates around 94% of all ammonia emissions in the EU, the vast majority of which comes from livestock excreta. Greenpeace estimates the livestock share at almost 80%, while mineral fertiliser application accounts for approximately 20%.

Applying more knowledge per hectare

A key aspect of the future of fertilisers in EU agriculture is the digitalisation of the sector, according to the report.

The authors noted that the new generation of farmers would be more knowledgeable and would gradually focus on nutrient use efficiency, meaning “apply the right nutrients to their plants at the optimum time”.

The report stressed that technology-based equipment and precision-farming tools, such as GPS, would be crucial in this direction.

New technologies will help EU farmers identify the actual nutrient needs of plants and, therefore, apply the precise amount of fertilisers. This will result in optimised plant growth as well as lower environmental impact.

Clean energy potential

The second biggest challenge is the production of fertilisers, which according to the authors, could give the sector a central role in the circular economy and decarbonisation in the near future.

This is the case for the nitrogen fertilisers, an energy-intensive product obtained by the conversion of nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, which constitutes the basic building block of all fertilisers.

A big opportunity to create a high quantity of green energy comes right from the ability to store properly the hydrogen used during the process to produce these fertilisers.

Considering this potential of ammonia as a means to store hydrogen, the fertilisers industry should be able to have a positive effect on the environment by decarbonizing the energy supply and making it more reliant on renewable energy, the report added.

By 2030 ammonia production is expected to receive around 10% of their electricity need from renewable sources, with the possibility to re-use the stored ammonia if needed locally.

EU regulatory framework

The industry points out that in order to deliver on its vision, a proper policy framework is needed to support farmers in optimising the use of fertilisers and enable the industry to continue to excel in the production of fertilisers while retaining its competitiveness internationally.

“In our Vision to 2030, the European fertiliser industry will be at the crossroads between nutrition and energy. Under the right legislative framework, the fertilizer industry could play a vital role in the context of the EU’s ambition to lead sustainable agricultural production and to maintain a strong industrial base while at the same time shifting towards a decarbonised economy,” Jacob Hansen, Director General of Fertilisers Europe told EURACTIV.com.

The industry says the European fertiliser producers operate in a competitive global market, therefore ensuring a level playing field on energy and carbon cost as well as fair trade must be the first priority.

Considering that the EU is currently looking at optimal ways to decarbonise the economy, the fertilizer industry insists that ammonia should be regarded as a cost-effective way to store and transport hydrogen in energy systems with a high penetration of renewables.

*Gerardo Fortuna contributed to this article

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