A new study published on 15 October in Nature Sustainability finds that adopting benchmarks similar to the fuel-efficiency standards used by the automotive industry in the production of fertilizer could yield huge economic benefits.
Nitrogen use is highly inefficient and more than half of the nitrogen used in farming practices does not go towards plant and animal growth but instead undergoes changes in molecular form ― from ammonia to nitrogen oxides, nitrates, and nitrous oxides ― which can have a massive impact on both human health and the environment, causing water pollution, biodiversity losses, stratospheric ozone depletion, and climate change. Agriculture is the largest source of nitrogen pollution, a form of pollution caused by excess nitrogen in the air and water, which has already exceeded safe levels outlined in the proposed set of planetary boundaries. Moreover, estimated growth in the global population by 2050 is projected to increase worldwide food demands by 50–100 per cent, therefore nitrogen pollution is a “key environmental challenge of the twenty-first century.”
The authors claim that policies relying on the voluntary adoption of farm-level management practices rarely lead to significant reductions in nitrogen pollution and are unlikely to achieve the required efficiency improvements. Instead, Prof David Kanter from New York University and Dr Tim Searchinger of Princeton propose a “technology-forcing approach” ― a policy to increase farmer adoption modelled on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards used to increase the fuel efficiency of vehicles in the US. They suggest this “CAFE-style approach to reducing nitrogen pollution could provide powerful incentives for fertilizer manufacturers to learn where and how enhanced-efficiency fertilizers work best, and ultimately to develop more technically sophisticated nitrogen products tailored to specific crops, climates, and soil conditions.”
In other words, fertilizer manufacturers would be required to sell more efficient fertilizers ― so-called enhanced-efficiency fertilizers (EEFs) ― over time to limit nitrogen runoff and reduce emissions. This would potentially stimulate innovation toward mitigating fertiliser pollution by providing “powerful incentives for fertilizer manufacturers to learn where and how EEFs work best, and ultimately to develop more technically sophisticated nitrogen products tailored to specific crops, climates and soil conditions.” While the prices of EEFs are higher, smaller amounts are needed to grow crops which ultimately boosts profits.
As a case study, the researchers analysed the US corn industry, which has the highest nitrogen application rate of any major US crop. Although EEFs have been shown to reduce nitrogen losses and improve yields, they are currently only used on about 12 per cent of US corn crops. Analysing a number of different scenarios, they found that applying the CAFE-style approach could produce net economic benefits of $5–8 billion (€4.3–6.9 billion) per year by 2030, saving farmers millions of dollars and massively reducing nitrogen losses. The increase in farm profits would be owing to increases in yield, which would offset the increased cost of EEFs. Industry profits would also arise from increased sales of the improved fertilizers with their higher profit margins.
The authors suggest that governments should introduce this type of regulatory programme in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution, stating that “industry-focused technology-forcing policies could be a promising option for reducing [nitrogen] losses even as we push our planet to produce far more food.”
(1) Kanter, D.R. and Searchinger, T.D. A technology-forcing approach to reduce nitrogen pollution. Nature Sustainability (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0143-8