Fertilisers produced from organic or recycled materials may have easier access to the EU single market under proposed rule changes. Intensive farming and human activities in EU countries have affected the natural balance in soils across member states.
Existing EU rules on fertilisers cover mainly conventional fertilisers, typically extracted from mines or produced chemically, with high energy-consumption and CO2 production. Variations in national rules make it difficult for producers of organic fertilisers to sell and use them across the EU single market.
In 2015 the EU funded the REFERTIL project which developed an environmentally friendly industrial-scale method of producing an organic phosphorus fertiliser known as animal bone biochar. It could be an effective substitute for phosphate mineral fertilisers and chemicals currently used in food crop production.
Biochar originates from different types of plant and animal by-products. It is produced under low temperature conditions in the absence of air; biomass is burned at 600 degrees Celsius in an oxygen-free vacuum with no gases emitted into the atmosphere. The Refertil project has successfully achieved zero-emission processing at the industrial scale, where all material element streams are recycled and reused into natural and safe products.
The UK Biochar Research Centre (UKBRC) is based in the School of GeoSciences at The University of Edinburgh, and works in collaboration with Newcastle University and Rothamsted Research. The biochar-producing facility (50kg per hour continuous process) has been producing biochar from whisky draff, coffee grinds, sewage sludge / digestate and disposable drinks cups. Biochar could contribute up to 15% of the carbon abatement required by 2030 under the Scottish Government’s new ambitious targets.
There are concerns over the use of Biochar. Almuth Ernsting comments in The Ecologist:
“Biochar is also promoted as a way of improving crop yields. Those claims, too, are contradicted by science. Field studies reveal highly variable impacts. A recent synthesis review found that in half of all published studies, biochar had either no effect on plants or more worryingly, even suppressed their growth. The author cautioned that due to possible ‘publication bias’, the reported success in 50% of cases should not be taken “as evidence of an overall biochar likelihood of producing positive impacts”. “
In contrast Edward Someus, a biochar science and technology engineer with Terra Humana, Sweden states that:
“These new REFERTIL-based organic fertilisers will be safe premium products at low and affordable costs. Zero-emission performance biochar production will also not compete with human food, animal feed and plant nutrition production and supply; a new bio-economy will be generated.”
“In Germany, the use of phosphate fertiliser from 1951 to 2011 resulted in the cumulative application of approximately 14 000 tonnes of uranium on agricultural land, corresponding to an average cumulative loading of 1 kg of uranium per hectare. The solution is the reduction or even substitution of these mineral fertilisers, such as with natural biochar phosphates.”
The change to the rules on the use of fertilisers in the EU would:
- promote increased use of recycled materials for producing fertilisers, thus helping the development of the circular economy, while reducing dependency on imported nutrients,
- ease market access for innovative, organic fertilisers, which would give farmers and consumers a wider choice and promote green innovation,
- establish EU-wide quality, safety and environmental criteria for “CE marked” fertilisers (i.e. those which can be traded in the whole EU single market),
- provide for clearer labelling requirements to better inform farmers and consumers,
- keep the option for producers not willing to sell their products on the whole EU market to comply with national rules instead (member states would remain free to allow fertilisers not complying with these EU-wide requirements into their national markets).
Currently, only 5% of waste organic material is recycled and used as fertilisers, but recycled bio-waste could substitute up to 30% of mineral fertilisers. The EU imports more than 6 million tonnes of phosphate rock a year, but it could recover up to 2 million tonnes of phosphorus from sewage sludge, biodegradable waste, meat and bone meal or manure. Nearly half of the fertilisers on the EU market are not covered by the existing regulation.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame