The Story of Fertilizers...

Why we need fertilizers

How fertilizers are made

How fertilizers work

How fertilizers are used

 

 

 

Why we need fertilizers

 

Global food production must increase significantly to ensure food security.

 

The FAO predicts that the world's population will reach 9.1 billion people by 2050. Food production will have to increase by some 70% above today's levels to keep pace with demand. This increase in food production could be achieved by developing more land for agriculture. However, the negative impact on climate change and global bio-diversity of converting natural forests or other wild habitats is well documented. Changes in land use account for some 12% of all the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming.

 

Increased agricultural efficiency

 

A more practical option is to make better use of the land currently devoted to agriculture, although this also faces some challenges. The world's agricultural area is actually shrinking due to increasing urbanisation, soil erosion and nutrient exhaustion and an alarming number of regions are now affected by water scarcity.

Furthermore, since the impressive growth in crop production during the "green revolution" of the 1960s and

1970s, growth in agricultural productivity has now started to decline in many regions. Recent climate change studies predict that this decline will accelerate. Global food security rests on reversing this trend. This requires better agricultural efficiency, more targeted crop fertilization and the adoption of modern crop science.

 

European self-sufficiency

 

Europe is fortunate in that it has a climate and enough farmland to be potentially self-sufficient in food production.

Its food imports, however, have increased by some 40% over the last 10 years. An agricultural area, outside of

Europe, the size of Germany is now devoted to supplying these. Given increasing global food needs, this land could be better used to support demand elsewhere.

Europe's agricultural policy has a decisive role in ensuring that it maintains a strong and diverse agricultural sector. It must encourage European farmers to optimize their production and, at the same time, reduce the environmental impact of their operations. This "sustainable intensification" of European agriculture requires widespread adoption of the best agricultural practice and the latest cultivation and soil management techniques.

 

Ensuring economic viability

 

To enable the necessary measures to be adopted by Europe's farming communities, European agriculture must be economically viable. If Europe's farmers are not profitable in the face of ever increasing input costs, they will be unwilling to invest in modernizing their operations. Fertilizers are an integral part of the global food production chain. Their contribution has enabled European agricultural productivity to become the highest in the world. Every euro invested in a fertilizer in Europe provides, on average, a five-fold return, assuring European farmers' financial

 

 

How Fertilizers are made

 

Fertilizer manufacture transforms naturally occurring raw materials into practical products to support plant life.

 

Each year, the European fertilizer industry transforms millions of tons of air, natural gas and mined ores into products based on the three essential plant nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

For nitrogen-based fertilizers, the largest product group, the process starts by mixing nitrogen from the air with hydrogen from natural gas at high temperature and pressure to create ammonia. Approximately 60% of the natural gas is used as raw material, with the remainder employed to power the synthesis process.

The ammonia is used to make nitric acid, with which it is then mixed to produce nitrate fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate (AN). Ammonia may also be mixed with liquid carbon dioxide to create urea. Both these products can be further mixed together with water to form UAN (urea ammonium nitrate) solution.

Phosphorus and potassium-based fertilizers are both produced from mined ores. Phosphate rock is primarily treated with sulphuric acid to produce phosphoric acid, which is either concentrated or mixed with ammonia to make a range of phosphate (P2O5) fertilizers.

 

 

 

Potash ores are usually rich in both potassium and sodium chloride. Typically, the ore is dissolved in hot water and the sodium chloride separated out, before the resulting muriate of potash fertilizer is concentrated by evaporation. This may then be further treated with nitric or sulphuric acid to produce nitrate or sulphate of potash fertilizers.

 

Environmental efficiency

 

While the basic ammonia synthesis process (Haber-Bosch) has remained unchanged since its invention 100 years ago, the equipment, control systems and skills have changed dramatically. Today, the European fertilizer industry's ammonia plants are the most energy efficient worldwide and its nitric acid plants are equipped with advanced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction technology.

Europe's strict environmental legislation means that the fertilizer industry has invested steadily to reduce its emissions of GHGs by more than 50% since the introduction of the emissions trading scheme. Further environmental targets should now focus on encouraging investment in the industry and avoiding carbon leakage.

 

Industry competitiveness

 

While deposits of natural gas, phosphate and potash rock are all relatively abundant globally, they can only be found to a very limited extent within Europe. The European fertilizer industry is therefore highly dependent on the quality and availability of imported raw materials. This challenges the industry to be highly efficient in its raw material use but also makes it vulnerable to the supply and pricing policies of countries outside Europe. In particular, the high price of gas in Europe makes it very difficult for the industry to remain cost-competitive in a global market. Restoring Europe's energy cost-competitiveness is a priority for fertilizer industry profitability, as well as for safeguarding jobs.

 

Product stewardship

 

The industry's aspirations for efficient, safe and environmentally-friendly fertilizer production has led Fertilizers Europe to develop an industry-wide management system to ensure its advanced production controls are consolidated and maintained. Its Product Stewardship program (www.productstewardship.eu) is compulsory for all Fertilizers Europe members and sets the highest global standards for programmes of this type.

The program also ensures that the industry oversees the transport, distribution and storage of its products, working closely with the supply chain to ensure the secure handling of fertilizers on their way to Europe’s farmers.

 

How fertilizers work

 

Effective crop nutrition is the key to increasing crop yields and maximizing production.

 

Crop nutrition requires sunlight, water and a balanced supply of the primary nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that support a plant's essential metabolic functions and enable it to grow.

The sun's energy combines with water and the nutrients, which are primarily absorbed from the soil via the plant’s root system, to allow it to develop to its full potential and provide the maximum nutritional value. When the plant is harvested, the nutrients it has absorbed are therefore lost from the soil.

Unless the nutrients are replenished, the soil's productive capacity declines. Natural processes that break down crop residues and organic matter replace about half of the nutrients in the soil but the remainder needs to be provided by fertilizers and other organic sources such as manure.

 

Predictable nutrient supply

 

The main fertilizers are based on one or more of the essential nutrients, which are delivered in a form that can be readily assimilated by the plant. They enable farmers to offer a specific crop a predictable, balanced nutrient supply, as well as important secondary elements, such as calcium, magnesium and sulphur, and other micronutrients.

The nutrient content of manures and other organic sources are far less predictable.

Effective fertilization programmes aim to closely balance the composition and availability of the nutrients in the soil with a plant's changing requirements over its growth cycle.

Targeted application maximizes plant nutrient uptake and$ ensures healthy and productive growth. It also minimizes nutrient losses from the soil, either to the atmosphere or waterways.

 

Main fertilizer types

 

Nitrogen-based fertilizers account for the majority of fertilizer use (67% of total consumption in Europe).

Most European farmers find DAN Directly Available Nitrogen fertilizers, such as ammonium nitrate (AN) and calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN), to be the most effective sources of crop nitrogen with European climatic conditions.

By jointly combining ammonium and nitrate, the two forms of reactive nitrogen most readily absorbed by the plant roots, they offer the highest nitrogen-use efficiency.

Other nitrogen fertilizers, such as urea and urea ,ammonium nitrate solution (UAN), are also available in Europe and are widely used in other parts of the world, most notably in the USA and South America. However, nitrogen losses to the atmosphere can occur when these fertilizers are progressively transformed into the nitrate form in the soil. This increases field emissions of greenhouse gases and also reduces their nitrogen-use efficiency.

Phosphate and potash-based fertilizers provide crops with essential phosphorus and potassium to balance the nutrient supply. They respectively account for some 16% and 17% of European fertilizer consumption and are often applied in combination with nitrogen fertilizers.

 

 

 

How fertilizers are used

 

The correct use and application of fertilizers are key to sustainable agriculture and europe's food security.

 

Sustainable agriculture relies on providing the necessary growing conditions for optimal crop production over the long term. It requires Europe's farmers to adopt the best agricultural practice to optimize crop yields and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. Fertilizer selection and use are an integral part of this process.

Agricultural experts, legislators and providers of agricultural inputs all have a role to play in ensuring the availability of suitable fertilizers and in promoting good agricultural practice. The European fertilizer industry plays an active role in explaining the specific attributes of its products and in the development of advanced farm management strategies.

Techniques such as crop rotation, minimum tillage and cover crops can help maintain the structure and nutritional quality of the soil, while the basic rule of thumb for the correct selection and application of fertilizers is given by the right product, at the right place, at the right rate, at the right time.

 

Product innovation

 

Modern fertilizer products are increasingly tailor-made to meet specific crop requirements and cater for different locations and soil types, as well as for the different weather conditions encountered in Europe.

Best practice in fertilizer application takes advantage of these characteristics to optimize nutrient-use efficiency.

Modern application machinery is often equipped with satellite technology such as GPS soil and biomass mapping, which can define nutrient demand down to within a few metres on a particular field.

Smart sensors enable highly targeted application patterns, with small coefficients of variation, improving crop productivity and greatly reducing nutrient losses.

While investment in the very latest farm equipment takes time to become a reality, the fertilizer industry continues to focus on developing practical tools, including GSM based mobile applications, for improving on-farm nutrient management.

Over the years, it has also built up a comprehensive range of information for farmers that addresses the issues of productivity, energy efficiency and the management of emissions.

 

Climate change: reducing emissions

 

Recent climate change predictions and the EU's continued focus on the environment mean that reducing both atmospheric and water-borne emissions from agriculture remains a priority.

Atmospheric emissions include the GHGs methane and nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as ammonia, which can directly affect human health and also cause soil acidification and the eutrophication of waterways. They primarily result from livestock production, organic sources of nitrogen and the application of certain types of fertilizer.

Mitigation measures include a variety of techniques that include low-nitrogen feeds and low-emission housing for livestock, covered slurry storage and more targeted application of slurry and solid manures, as well as the recommendations for fertilizers as outlined in the Gothenberg protocol and the EU Air Quality package. Leaching of nitrate or phosphate in the soil to waterways can also lead to their eutrophication and excessive algal growth. Leaching usually occurs when the soil is saturated with water and the nutrients are washed beyond the plant root zone. As most losses occur outside the cropping period, good agricultural practice aims to minimize excess concentrations in the soil at the end of this period.

For winter cereals, application of nitrogen fertilizer at the economic optimum rate has been shown to not only to maximize nutrient-use efficiency and crop productivity but also to significantly decrease excess nitrate concentrations in the soil after the harvest.

Other agricultural practices to limit soil erosion and nutrient run-off include maintaining a porous soil structure, immobilizing residual nitrogen and phosphorus with catch-and-cover crops, and the synchronization of fertilizer application with crop growth cycles. More ecologically appropriate application methods for spreading manure, such as soil injection, can also have a significant impact.

 

Carbon footprint of fertilizers

 

European farmers can now use the 'Cool Farm Tool' carbon footprint calculator application to check the overall environmental impact of their operations. With the availability of new fertilizers that limit soil emissions, the main focus of current GHG mitigation efforts is on the promotion of nitrogen-use efficiency. This has increased by 45% in Europe since 1985, but there still is further scope for improvement.

 

Nutrient use and recycling

 

Recent attention has focused on "closing the fertilizer loop" through the more effective use of on-farm waste and nutrient recycling strategies. These primarily involve recycling crop waste through composting, anaerobic digestion of manure for energy or fuel generation, and its more efficient use within the overall fertilization strategy.

On an industrial scale, incineration of poultry waste for energy generation, with the resulting ash being recycled as a fertilizer, has been successful in several regions.

Research continues into other viable nutrient recycling schemes. Combined with better nutrient-use efficiency, these can lead to major improvements in overall resource use.

 

Product innovation

 

European fertilizer producers are continuously improving their products and processes based on feedback from farmers and exploring possibilities that open up within the food production chain. The focus is on new fertilizer compositions and structures, as well as application technology, to enable more efficient crop nutrition.

Products are increasingly being targeted at specific crops, offering a variety of release profiles and taking into account increasingly limited resources like water.

In line with its vision of infinite fertilizers, Fertilizers Europe cooperates closely with farmers' organizations and other players within the food production chain to develop a coherent approach to Europe's agricultural, environmental and economic challenges and to advance best agricultural practice within the farming community.