Meeting the global food challenge without compromising sustainability will require intensified innovation in the field of fertilisers to make them smarter and less harmful to the environment. Innovative energy must be geared towards consolidating this new generation of nutrients as a real and attractive alternative, resolving the technological difficulties of releasing exactly the amount required for the specific needs of each crop, reducing the difference in cost per unit of nitrogen compared to conventional fertilisers and minimising the risk of accumulation of synthetic material residues in the soil as a result of their use.
In high value-added crops, smart fertilisers are already cost-effective and their cost has come down thanks to increased sulphur-coated urea (SCU) production capacity in China and the development of new polymer-coated urea (PCU) fertilisers in the US.
Reduction of nitrogen emissions
There is no other way to reduce harmful emissions from fertilisers in the field, as proposed by Europe, than technology. The actual nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) for all agricultural land in the EU-27 is on average 61%. This value has to be increased by 25%, to reach a NUE of 72%, to ensure the required actual crop yield with acceptable nitrogen (N) run-off to surface water. In general, a reduction in actual N inputs of around 15-30% is considered reasonable, depending on the use of more efficient fertiliser application techniques, to protect air and water quality. Fertilizers Europe likes the method and is in favour of using the NUE indicator as a metric to assess progress towards the nutrient loss reduction target.
In a similar vein, urease inhibitors (UIs) are relevant to achieve a reduction in nitrogen emissions that the EU wants to be up to 30% in some countries by 2030 compared to 2005. Since UIs can reduce NH3 emissions from urea by up to 70%, Germany has mandated their addition to granular urea from 2020. At the other extreme, China consumed 34 % of global urea in 2019, which accounted for about 40% of all synthetic nitrogen fertilisers in China and thus has the highest amounts of NH3 emissions worldwide.
Europe has not only environmental reasons to promote smart fertilisers, but also economic ones. Firstly, because it is heavily dependent on imports for most mineral fertilisers: it buys more than 3 million tonnes of nitrogen-based nutrients from abroad each year, and if ammonia is included, the level of imports reaches 6 million tonnes, while imports of potassium fertilisers are around 2 million tonnes. In circumstances of geopolitical instability such as those associated with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a major supplier of fertiliser raw materials, this dependence can become an avenue of weakness.
Smarter fertilisers could reduce pollution and at the same time ensure a more durable and sustainable agriculture. More and more attractive solutions are becoming available in fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology to improve crop yields and efficiency, in line with EU and UN targets. In regions such as Spain, where climate change will lead to more erratic rainfall and extreme weather events, we must focus on the development of new smart products to secure the future of our productive capacity.