In conversation with... Jacob Hansen

With half of global food production down to the use of mineral fertilizers, the sector plays a vital role in providing Europe with affordable and nutritious food. We clearly cannot survive without mineral fertilizers and so need to make sure this resource is used better, says Jacob Hansen, Director General of Fertilizers Europe.
Director General of Fertilizers Europe Jacob Hansen | Photo credit: Fertilizers Europe

The Farm to Fork Strategy calls for very substantial changes to EU agriculture. How will it impact the European fertilizer sector?

The Farm to Fork strategy voiced an ambition to reduce nutrient losses to the environment from both organic and mineral fertilizers by 50 percent by 2030. I accept that we have to focus on this challenge. While doing so, we will as a consequence reduce the combined use of organic and mineral fertilizers. However, the proposed level of ambition is clearly unrealistic in the given time frame. We have to understand that change cannot be brought about simply by a decision in an office in Brussels.

Instead, we have to work with millions of farmers to improve practices in their fields and glasshouses to reduce the losses. The European Commission must carry out proper impact assessments of its ambitious targets. Will we be able to produce enough food? Will farmers still be able to make a living? Will Europe continue to have a competitive agri-food chain sector?


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You highlighted the need to work with farmers on the ground in making a real impact. In what ways can better farm management practices enhance the sustainability footprint of fertilizers?

I am convinced that an increased focus on the efficiency of nutrient use is key; nutrients that end up in plants and on our dining tables providing us with great food, rather than lost to the environment. This is the way forward. However, it is not an easy task as we need to improve practises on the ground. The Commission’s proposal to develop an Integrated Nutrient Management Action Plan is a step in the right direction, one which should lead to more balanced fertilisation and more sustainable nutrient management.

The work done by experts in this field should act as a basis for this objective. One example is the Nitrogen Use Efficiency Indicator developed by the EU’s Nitrogen Expert Panel, which offers ready-to-use solutions for more efficient nitrogen use in food production. As an industry, we promote the idea of applying more knowledge per hectare. Better advice and planning, better fertilizer products, precisely targeted to specific crops, combined with new tools and on-farm precise fertilisation techniques are opening a new range of exciting possibilities for EU farmers.

These developments will be key to maintaining a productive European agriculture sector and ensuring an environmentally friendly agri-food chain. All stakeholders will have to play their part. The European fertilizer sector is committed to working hand-in-hand with farmers. Importantly, policymakers will also be expected to match the level of their ambition with the level of support needed for farmers and new technologies.

"The European Green Deal and the ambition to decarbonise our economy means the fertilizer industry will need to reinvent itself and go beyond current production technology. That is difficult, but it can be done"

Producing mineral fertilizers is energy intensive with production predominantly based on natural gas. Where therefore does the industry fit in with the European Green Deal and the EU’s ambition to become carbon neutral by 2050?

As an industry, we support the development of policies that help enable the transition to a climate-neutral economy by 2050, but only if it is done in a way that keeps European industry competitive. Today’s production of nitrogen fertilizers is indeed energy intensive. In Europe, ammonia production is mainly based on natural gas as a raw material and steam methane reforming technology. Over the years, our industry has made huge improvements in the energy efficiency of our production processes.

However, we are now at the point where any future investment in current technology will only result in marginal efficiency improvements. The European Green Deal, and the ambition to decarbonise our economy, means the fertilizer industry will need to reinvent itself and go beyond current production technology. That will be difficult, but it can be done. Several low-carbon technologies, such as Carbon Capture and Storage and electrolysis, are emerging and could produce low-carbon ammonia, the building block of fertilizers.

These technologies, however, are currently not economically justifiable, so the Green Deal needs to provide incentives to large scale demonstration projects and knowledge build-up.

"We need a combination of long-term policy solutions, focused on key enablers such as low-carbon and competitively priced energy and feedstock, infrastructure to transport low-carbon resources and the development of standards and funds to finance the industry’s transition"

What type of policy framework do you believe is needed to help the European fertilizer industry invest, transform and deliver on the EU’s long-term vision?

What we need as an industry is a long-term policy that balances the EU’s climate ambitions with its industrial competitiveness. It is important to keep in mind that our industry operates in a global market, as fertilizers are traded between continents. The fertilizer industry is already affected by the EU’s Emissions Trading System and any further decarbonisation could expose the industry to the risk of carbon leakage.

However, provided that systems such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism are in place and maintaining a level playing field, European producers should have the confidence and the economic room to invest in new technologies. In fact, the role of ammonia in decarbonising the economy is an exciting opportunity. Ammonia is the most efficient storage medium for hydrogen, and so could function, for example, as a carbon-free fuel for the maritime sector.

In order to get there, however, we need a combination of long-term policy solutions, focused on key enablers such as low-carbon and competitively priced energy and feedstocks, infrastructure to transport low-carbon resources and the development of standards and funds to finance the industry’s transition. This will be challenging, therefore close cooperation and dialogue between the industry and policymakers will be essential. Only in this way can we ensure a strong and innovative production base and supply of mineral fertilizers in the EU and thereby an economically successful and environmentally friendly European agriculture sector.

Read the most recent articles written by The Parliament Magazine - Issue 520 | 7 September 2020

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