As concerns about the availability of fertilisers in the future keep rising, research and innovation on managing practices, technologies, products, and recommendations for Europe’s agriculture have also grown exponentially over the last decade. The EU-funded NUTRI-KNOW project aims to push for the adoption of new nutrient management practices at farm level.
For decades, agriculture has been relying heavily on nitrogen and phosphorus. However, the way we have been managing them is far from sustainable.
In 2021, 10.9 million tonnes of mineral, nitrogen, and phosphorus-based fertilisers were used in agricultural production in the European Union, according to Eurostat figures. Only a portion of these fertilisers remained within the food production cycle while the rest was wasted, polluting air and water and resulting in significant economic losses to farmers.
Worldwide 65% of the nitrogen applied by farmers runs off into rivers, lakes, and natural environments. Research estimates that the total societal cost of nitrate pollution from agriculture in the EU ranges between €61-215 billion (US$67.5-238 billion), equivalent to 0.5-1.8% of the bloc’s gross domestic product.
Over the last years, the scarcity of natural resources, and particularly the reduction in fossil fuel supplies, has also affected fertiliser production (down 70 % in the EU) and prices (up by 300 %). As the concerns about the availability of fertilisers in the future keep rising, it is crucial to improve nutrient management practices in agriculture.
Arklow is a small town in County Wicklow, on the southeast coast of Ireland. From there, over the last four years, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority (Teagasc) of the country has been studying how to solve some of Europe’s problems with nutrients and fertilisers.
“We have been focusing on displacing some of a crop’s chemical fertiliser needs by incorporating bio-based fertilisers into the crops nutrient management plan,” explained Aoife Egan, research officer at Teagasc, in an exclusive interview with Earth.Org.
“We have trialled cattle and pig slurry, poultry manure, and two types of dairy processing sludge. And we have followed the crop rotation set by the farm owner, which has included maize silage, spring wheat, oilseed rape, winter wheat, and spring beans.”
The research project in Arklow is not the only of its kind. Over the past years, a great amount of knowledge on managing practices, technologies, products, and recommendations in the primary sector has been developed by several EU-funded projects. But this knowledge has not properly reached the farms.
“We need to promote the circularisation of knowledge in the field of nutrient management. We need to share and disseminate information, experiences, and best practices related to nutrient management in a practical, open, and collaborative way,” Víctor Carbajal, strategic project responsible at BETA Technological Centre from the Universitat de Vic – Universitat Central de Catalunya (UVic-UCC) in Spain, pointed out.
Carbajal also coordinates NUTRI-KNOW, a new European project that sees the involvement of Teagasc. It will gather the findings from 12 research projects across Ireland, Spain, Italy, and Belgium and increase their reach. Its main goal is to encourage the uptake of new nutrient management practices at the farm level.
The Importance of Sustainable Nutrient Management Practices
The European CAP Network –a platform for improving the flow of knowledge about agriculture and rural policy in Europe – has carried out hundreds of specific projects in nutrient management in recent years. For instance, the BETA Technological Centre, together with agricultural cooperatives, has studied a new approach to concentrate slurry to reduce the costs of managing livestock waste.
The technology they used has been shown to concentrate over 85% of the total solids, 45% of the total nitrogen and 85% of the phosphorus. The process is cost-effective, minimises emissions, and reduces energy consumption, and has made converting livestock waste into a bio-based fertiliser economically viable. At a local scale, the benefits of sustainable nutrient management practices become evident.
“Expanding sustainable management practices in agriculture is crucial to optimise the use of resources, avoiding waste and reducing costs, promote environmental sustainability, increase agricultural productivity, ensure food security, and comply with regulations,” explained Víctor Carbajal. “Such improvements have significant environmental and economic benefits, contributing to the sustainability of agriculture and the well-being of rural communities.”
“Improving nutrient management in agriculture has a direct effect on the surrounding environment,” Aoife Egan added. “By making small changes on their farm and how they manage nutrients, they can increase biodiversity and reduce nutrient run-off into waterways, improving water quality and farm efficiency, profitability and overall sustainability.”
Connecting Farmers and Science
By 2050, the world will need to produce 60% more food than it does today, in order to feed a world population of 9.3 billion people, according to estimates compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In the context of global depletion of phosphorus (and potassium) reserves and strong reliance on fossil gas for nitrogen production, the agriculture system needs to look towards more sustainable fertiliser alternatives. But connecting the daily farmers’ routine and their practices with science to close the circle of innovation has proven to be difficult.
“To encourage farmers to move away from traditional mineral fertiliser practices and move towards more sustainable alternatives, it’s important that they hear about the positive experiences of using innovative solutions from their peers, and have easily understandable information available to them,” said Egan.
That’s why one of the final goals of the NUTRI-KNOW project is to share easy-to-understand and ready-to-practice knowledge and connect people and territories through a community of practice.
The objective is to establish an ongoing cycle of knowledge exchange, where the different actors involved, such as farmers, researchers, and other professionals in the field, can actively share their experiences, research findings, and lessons learned. Farmers and agricultural professionals will be able to share their experiences and challenges to look for effective solutions together with scientific experts.
“By promoting collaboration between actors, knowledge sharing, joint research and the creation of innovative solutions are facilitated,” concluded Carbajal. “This will drive the adoption of clean technologies, renewable energy, sustainable agricultural practices, and other developments that will contribute to overall sustainability.”