Green circular fertilizers (4) – The advantages and disadvantages of the three types of GCMs – Foodlog

Green Circular Fertilizers (GCMs) are being developed to overcome the drawbacks of conventional fertilizers, especially those of chemical fertilizers discussed in our previous articles in this series. At the same time, they must maintain and preferably improve the positive contribution that conventional fertilizers offer. They must be an answer to the three challenges of mankind: achieving food security without unleashing climate change and preserving biodiversity.
GCMs should enable farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to curb climate change. They must be able to halt the decline in mined phosphate and other mining-derived mineral fertilizers by making the use of nutrients for agriculture and horticulture circular. In addition, GCMs must halt the loss of biodiversity by ending the pollution of the environment by nitrogen and phosphate.
These demands are a global challenge because the reality of agriculture and the production and consumption of agricultural products knows no borders. It would therefore be naive to pursue these requirements only in the Netherlands.

In table 1 we provide an overview of the possible green circular fertilizers. Below we discuss their expected potential and advantages and disadvantages.

GCMs must be able to provide a substantial replacement for the production and use of current fertilizers and manures without using fossil energy. They should be able to do so under the following assumptions:

    1. Growth of the world population;
    2. Eradicating poverty; where poverty prevails, agricultural development stagnates and land is being farmed out, nature disappears and carbon sequestration (C-sequestration) is negative with a ditto impact on climate change;
    3. Decrease in the heterogeneous global redistribution of nutrients through transport of feed and food for the fertilizers of type 2 and 3; these are being developed with more local circular agriculture as an ideal;
    4. Economical and sensible use of GCMs, as may be expected for fertilizers;
    5. Only organic compost and digestate from the fermentation of manure from organic livestock farming are used for organic farming with the aim of reducing artificial fertilizers as much as possible. In other cases, the GCMs of types 2.b and c and of types 3.a to 3.d. serve to use fertilizer (including type 1) as economically as possible.

Biomass competes with food

The production or function of the three main types of GCMs in the table changes dramatically. For type 1 (green fertilizer) this goes without saying: fossil energy is no longer used for production. For type 2.a, the assumption is that a significant part of agriculture will become organic. The European Green Deal, which aims to make 25% of agriculture organic, is an example of this. With regard to types 2.b, 2.c and 3, the basic products are no longer a residual product (‘waste’) but become an essential raw material. For the Dutch farmer in particular, manure is no longer waste; the nutrients to be recovered are used in a circular manner insofar as they are not lost during use in agriculture and during recovery.

Anyone who takes a closer look at Table 1 realizes that GCMs as we have presented them so far probably cannot make a significant contribution to the three challenges facing humans. An exception is nevertheless fertilizer produced using sun, wind or water

Anyone who takes a closer look at Table 1 realizes that GCMs as we have presented them so far probably cannot make a significant contribution to the three challenges facing humans. An exception is nevertheless fertilizer produced using sun, wind or water. Mining and transport of phosphate and potassium must then also be able to make use of these alternative energy sources. This observation does not apply to bioenergy from oil-bearing crops and wood (waste). Biomass can only be produced in competition with food agriculture. This is problematic because increasing land use – and ultimately land shortage – is at the expense of natural ecosystems, with the loss of living and dead organic matter.

Reuse without recovery and concentration of nutrients (type 2) has no significant effect because current practice hardly changes. Organic farming is an exception to that rule. Organic farming needs an area estimated at least 20% larger than the current agricultural systems. This results in the decline of natural ecosystems and biodiversity. The negative aspect of organic farming is currently barely visible because the share of organic food is still small. Nevertheless, it is an unavoidable consequence of organic farming.
Organic farming can only have sufficient fertilizers if at least 30% of the nutrients used may come from conventional livestock farming; organic farming therefore allows this supplementation from the usual point of view by making a distinction between A and B fertilizers.

In addition to 2a, organic farming can have forms of 2b for which no fertilizer has been used during growth, such as vegetation from nature reserves. In addition, organic agriculture can have grass that is rich in leguminous plants and therefore fixes nitrogen in a natural way. However, this will only have a significant yield as long as the phosphate stocks have not been exhausted by previous application of fertilizer supplied from elsewhere in the soil. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that organic farming in the Netherlands benefits from the current high levels of nitrogen deposition from agriculture. However, if the importance of organic farming increases, the availability of the required fertilizers decreases. In that case, production falls and agricultural land use must, as already mentioned, be expanded. This is not just a theoretical story. A study The situation of organic farming in France showed that 23% of the nitrogen, 73% of the phosphate and 53% of the potassium in organic farming came from conventional farming. This established fact shows that natural ecosystems and biodiversity will come under further pressure if organic farming does not take into account its environmental impact.

Recovery costs nitrogen and too much phosphate
Finally, we discuss the type 3 fertilizers from table 1. They naturally recover mineral fertilizers, but have the disadvantage that the carbon and a significant part of the nitrogen from the manure are lost. For example, depletion of phosphate is prevented, but the energy on which the installations run continues to circulate carbon without permanently sequestering it as is necessary to reverse the already overshooting effects of burning fossil carbon. And unfortunately nitrogen, the nutrient that is most needed worldwide for food security, remains with type 3 outside the cycle that is proposed as a solution. In type 3, the ratio in which nitrogen and phosphorus can be offered as fertilizer grows skewed, so that too little nitrogen and too much phosphate must be offered. This is undesirable, because as we saw earlier, phosphate is the scarcest nutrient.

Part 1 in this series appeared on Monday 1 November. Wednesday 3 November part 2: From urban cesspool to fertilizer and back again. Saturday, November 6, part 3: Too expensive? Part 5: Circular and linear will be published on Saturday 13 November.

This series is made possible, without any editorial influence, by farmers’ cooperative Agrifirm. Farmers need perspective and would like a clear picture of the fertilizers they will be allowed to use in the next 30 years. That image does not yet exist and can therefore be developed in the openness of a non-ideological and as factual conversation as possible. All this in preparation for (political) opinion-forming and setting standards.

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency advises the government to come up with mandatory standards for circularity, especially in the field of agriculture. One of the most important circular links in agriculture is that of manure. Animals (including humans) eat plants or each other and produce dung that is food for new life. Does this natural circularity also work in the agricultural system, that is, in nature that we have set up to optimally serve the wishes of people seeking prosperity? We want to have enough to eat and not pay too much for it. We also want to strengthen biodiversity. This is possible with fertilizer, a strategy where of VS seem to put in. European governments want to get rid of it because the production of fertilizer uses a lot of fossil energy and if it is applied too generously, it will erode the soil. Yara’s fertilizer factory in Sluiskil is currently shut down because natural gas prices are too high to produce fertilizer at acceptable prices. With the Green Deal and the Farm2Fork strategy, the EU has decided to go for 25% fossil-free agriculture.
A new era is dawning. The Hague and Brussels present a new challenge to the food chain, with new standards that agriculture must meet.

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Green circular fertilizers (4) – The advantages and disadvantages of the three types of GCMs – Foodlog

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