Fertilisers regulation: EU must keep the door open to innovation

To truly benefit farmers and foster innovation, the new EU fertilisers regulation must be technologically neutral, says Jan Huitema.

Jan Huitema | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Jan Huitema

23 Oct 2017

With its proposal for a new fertilisers regulation, the European Commission expanded the scope of the regulation from solely mineral fertilisers to also organic and waste-based fertilisers. This increases the choice for farmers, but more importantly stimulates the recovery of nutrients from organic and waste streams into secondary raw materials, an important goal of the circular economy package. 

Looking at the numbers, currently only five per cent of our bio-waste is recycled. If we made more use of the recycling potential of this organic waste material, 30 per cent of mineral fertilisers could be replaced. This potential must be unlocked.

Let’s face it - isn’t it strange that each year, the EU imports six million tonnes of phosphates - a limited resource - from third countries, while two million tonnes of phosphorus could be recovered from organic and waste streams? 


Besides that, we have to acknowledge that the production of mineral fertilisers - mainly nitrogen fertilisers - requires a lot of energy in the form of fossil fuels, despite the significant improvements that have been made by the industry. 

At the same time, there is an abundance of nitrogen that can be recovered from different sources - such as animal manure - and processed into safe and efficient fertilising products by innovative techniques.

Of course, mineral fertilisers cannot be replaced totally and they will continue to play an important role in current and future agricultural production systems. Eventually, when all is said and done, it is up to the farmers to choose if they want to make more use of organic and/or waste-based fertilisers. 

To stimulate their use it is important to guarantee that they are high quality products with a sufficient agronomic efficiency and comply with environmental protection standards. This is vital, as there is still a certain distrust among some politicians and several stakeholders concerning the efficiency of these products and the potential danger of contaminants.

On the other hand, many farmers and manufacturers are eager to continue and improve already existing initiatives or start up new ones on nutrient recovery. Currently, producers of organic or waste-based fertilisers are limited by diverging national rules and standards. 

However, the new fertilisers regulation provides them with an improved long-term prospect. It also offers a point on the horizon concerning the requirements that have to be met in order to be eligible for obtaining the CE mark and thus increase the economic viability of their business.

To ensure this happens and to foster future innovation, we have to make sure that the legislation is technologically neutral. In other words, we have to keep the door open for newly developed products that could become available in the future, but are not yet covered by the regulation. In certain areas such as the agro-food industry and agriculture, there is huge potential for developing new fertilising products by nutrient recovery.

The Commission has proposed adapting the legislation to technological progress when necessary. With this provision, it will be possible to add new fertilising product categories or allow new components to be used as ingredients for the production of fertilisers. 

Of course, it has to be proven that those products are sufficiently effective and safe. This provision is important to be maintained in the legislative procedure in order to contribute to further unlocking the potential of nutrient recovery.

In the European Parliament discussions are coming to an end. The plenary vote is foreseen by the end of October. The debate will be fierce until the end and the discussion will be mainly focused on a few sensitive topics. 

In the run-up to the plenary vote, it is therefore important not to lose sight of the initial goal of the legislation: a more resource-efficient and less carbon-intensive fertilisers industry by making more use of nutrient recovery. 

As the devil is in the details, we should be cautious with accepting amendments that tend to introduce too many technical details in order to protect the status of specific fertilising products. This could shut the door to innovation and undermine the goal of the legislation.


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