MEPs and industry experts join forces in calling for 'compromise' approach to new EU fertilizer rules

Environment committee rapporteur says colleagues must be careful not to impose limits or requirements which cannot be met.

From Left to right: MEPs Jan Huitema and Peter Jahr, Reinhard Buscher, head of chemicals unit at DG GROW, Elisabetta Gardini MEP, Jacob Hansen, director general of Fertilizers Europe and Dariusz Rosati MEP | Photo credit: Jean-Yves Limet

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

29 Sep 2016

The revised Fertilizers regulation aims to harmonise definitions and quality standards for all types of fertilizers available on the market.

An event in Parliament organised by The Parliament Magazine in association with Fertilizers Europe heard that the proposal has been generally welcomed but some concerns still remain.

Europe’s fertilizers business boasts annual revenue estimated as high as €25bn and the European Commission’s regulation would make access for organic and waste based fertilisers to the EU single market easier, putting them on a level playing field with traditional, mineral-based fertilizers.


The regulation introduces strict limits for cadmium in phosphate fertilisers. The limits will be tightened from 60 mg/kg to 40 mg/kg after three years and to 20 mg/kg after 12 years. The Commission has also proposed optional harmonisation.

Polish EPP group deputy Dariusz Rosati, who co-hosted the breakfast roundtable, said, “A compromise needs to be found between our desire to eliminate cadmium on the one hand, but not to kill our phosphate fertilizing industry on the other.”

Rosati, deputy Chair of the EPP working group on the economy and environment, added, “I am confident that Parliament will find such a compromise that safeguards the interests of both consumer and the agriculture industry."

Farmers are currently dependent on north and west Africa for phosphate with 70 per cent of EU imports coming from countries such as Morocco where there is usually a cadmium level of far more than 20mg/kg.

If the Commission reduces the permissible level of cadmium, farmers in Europe may be forced to switch to imports from Russia, where the phosphate has far lower natural levels of the metal.

Rosati told the debate, held in Parliament on 28 September, “Clearly one of the key and most contentious issues will be the levels of impurities and heavy metals, including cadmium.”

He emphasised that all dangerous substances need to be reduced or eliminated as much as possible and this includes cadmium; that the removal of cadmium from phosphate fertilizers is currently problematic; that there appear to be no ready technologies to remove cadmium from phosphate rock and that technologies to recover phosphorus from the recycling of organic matter or household sewage have still not been developed.

Another speaker, Italian EPP group member Elisabetta Gardini, rapporteur on the fertilizers regulation for Parliament's environment committee, described the proposals as “very complex”, adding, “It has internal and external implications. It concerns the internal market but also the trade relations the EU has with some countries, like Morocco and Russia.”

She reminded the 70-strong audience of the importance of the fertilizer sector, saying it provides 95,000 “sustainable job” in Europe.

While she welcomes the draft law as a “good starting point”, Gardini cautioned that a “great challenge” still awaits policymakers.

She warned, “It should be of the utmost importance not to go too far. It is important to be careful not to lose what is already good in the regulation and not to impose limits or requirements which cannot be met.”

Outlining details of the proposal, Reinhard Buscher, head of the “chemicals” unit at DG GROW at the Commission, stressed that one of the aims was to support mineral fertilisers, including “not imposing limits for heavy metals.”

The German official added that, as a result, organic fertilisers “never became a strong competitor” for mineral fertilisers.

Farmers, he said, need phosphate fertilisers to feed the planet, adding, “The Commission is well aware of this need and won’t cut off farmers from access to the fertilisers on which they - and all of us - depend so heavily.”

Buscher went on, “But this is not to say that we should give up our ambition to develop more sustainable fertilizers which allow contaminated soil to get clean faster.”

Health risks linked to cadmium are “well documented” and fertilization with phosphate fertilisers is “by far” the main cause of cadmium contamination of agricultural soils.

Creating a single market for organic fertilizer is “just a first and rather small step” towards more sustainable fertilizing products, he told the discussion.

“The next generation of fertilizers that are based on renewable feedstock have much greater potential and we estimate that up to 30 per cent of phosphate fertilisers could come from renewable resources.”

Further comment came from Jacob Hansen, director general of Fertilizers Europe, the EU-wide representative body for the sector, who pointed out that, currently, only about five per cent of phosphate comes from recycled sources.

This, he pointed out, is “far from the expectations” of the Commission (for 20-30 per cent to be sourced from renewables).

“Words,” he said, “and new categories in legal texts don’t necessarily create a market or business case. Even if this goal came true, our industry would still rely on imports of phosphate rock from different countries and there’s no way Russia alone will be able to meet European demand for phosphate rock.”

The job of MEPs now, he suggested, is to “strike the right balance between all concerns.”

Hansen also highlighted another area of concern about the regulation, warning that the proposal put the availability of “key fertilizers” at stake.

“The key here,” he argued, “is to strike a balance between all the different concerns.

"The Commission proposes to cut significantly and in a pre-determined way the level of cadmium in phosphate fertilizers but let’s be frank, this has clear geopolitical and trade implications.”

Hansen pointed out that mineral fertilizer producers and growers were “very concerned” about proposed rules on “controlled release fertilisers” which, he told the meeting are “essential” in ornamental horticulture and used by some 90 per cent of outdoor garden nurseries.

“The Commission has put forward requirements for the coatings of these products that are impossible to meet,” he said.

In a Q&A session that followed the formal debate, Peter Jahr, a German EPP group deputy, predicted that the debate would coincide with the start of an “intense political fight” on the proposal between Parliament, Commission and member states.

Echoing the general theme of the meeting, he also spoke of the need for a “compromise” over what the commission has proposed.

He said, “Fertilizers are an integral part of food production but, we have to remember, of course, that some people in this Parliament still believe that all fertilizers kill.”

Another attendee, Dutch ALDE group deputy Jan Huitema, a member of Parliament’s agriculture and environment committee, said he was “pleased” with the plans drafted by the Commission but appealed for “more innovation” in the sector, adding that this had to come from industry rather than legislators.

Tom Keen, European policy advisor for the British Agriculture Bureau, posed an open question about the cost of implementing the Commission’s proposals, asking, “Who’s going to pay for all this?”

Responding, Buscher said that while the overall aim of the legislation was to improve consumer and environmental protection, he agreed that there were cost implications that had to be addressed.

Turning to upcoming negotiations on the Regulation, he added, “We will listen to ways in which we might make this more practicable.”

The draft regulation will now be sent to Parliament and Council for adoption. Once adopted, it will be directly applicable, without the need for transposition into national law.

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