Prioritising sustainable food and farming systems in the fertiliser strategy

For the EU to maintain credibility as a climate leader at COP27, its upcoming Fertiliser Strategy must advance the sustainable farming agenda, not subsidise its fertiliser industry.

Conventional farming is heavily dependent on external inputs, and European agriculture is particularly dependent on inorganic (manufactured) fertilisers, with the EU consuming about 10% of the world’s supply. Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is especially fossil-fuel intensive, responsible for an estimated 10.6% of agricultural emissions, and 2.1% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Fertiliser use has sustained high yields since the mid-20th century but has gone hand in hand with a simplification of farming systems; a decrease in crop diversity and—in combination with agro-chemicals—has allowed shorter crop rotations. Over time this has created a vicious cycle of dependence on these inputs for modern farming. Furthermore, the excessive use of fertilisers (organic and inorganic) involves considerable emissions and leakage to soil, air and water, causing water pollution and eutrophication, contributing to soil degradation, GHG emissions, and damaging biodiversity. The impacts of the ‘high-input high-output' agriculture model, of which fertilisers are a critical element, are reducing the resilience of farming systems and threatening agricultural production and food security in the long term as proven by the droughts in recent years and the related yield losses in Europe.

Transitioning towards more resilient and sustainable farm and food systems, as set out in the European Green Deal and its Farm to Fork Strategy, is therefore necessary and urgent. Cutting fertiliser use in the EU regions that use them extensively could bring major environmental improvements while—in combination with a wider transition to more sustainable practices—contributing to long-term food availability. There is ample evidence that the sooner this transition is begun, the easier and less costly it will be.

The recent hike in fertiliser prices, and the geo-political vulnerability of a system reliant on gas, most of which comes from Russia, is yet another reason to accelerate the shift to a more independent, sustainable and resilient farming system. The price of nitrogen fertilisers increased by 47.8% between the second quarter of 2020 and the second quarter of 2022 (Eurostat 2022), significantly raising production costs for European farmers, and in turn, food prices. In response, the EU has reduced tariffs on fertiliser imports and most recently approved ‘emergency’ measures to prop up its domestic fertiliser sector, despite several fertiliser companies recording more than double the amount of profits compared to the same time in the previous year. This amounts to a new fossil fuel subsidy, given that the production of nitrogen-based fertiliser is dependent on gas.

Most recently, the EU has announced that it will develop a new Fertiliser Strategy, to be published on 9 November. The direction the EU takes on fertilisers is inseparable from its overall commitment to both climate action and to transforming unsustainable food systems. This new Strategy must therefore build on the existing Farm to Fork Strategy, which already foresees measures to reduce nitrogen use by 2030 and the Integrated Nutrient Management Plan (INMAP). The latter was proposed as part of the Circular Economy Action Plan and initially planned to be delivered before the end of this year. Now is the time to rapidly set a more ambitious and urgent target to reduce nitrogen use and through specific measures, such as: free nutrient management advice for farmers, accelerated investment aid for improved efficiency (e.g. nutrient management, precision agriculture technologies) and support for sustainable soil management practices (e.g. crop rotations with nitrogen-fixing crops, organic inputs). These actions need to be taken particularly in EU countries and regions where 1) nitrogen use efficiency is low and can be improved and 2) nitrogen fertiliser use is high and can be reduced (e.g. in the Netherlands, Belgium etc).

There are various funds that can support these measures, including at the EU level: the Common Agriculture Policy, Recovery Funds and proceeds from the energy windfall tax. Further, action on fertilisers will need to be complemented by other initiatives to transform food systems, such as reducing pesticide use and food waste, shifting to sustainable diets, and ensuring nature restoration.
As previously argued by IEEP and European think tanks from the Think Sustainable Europe network, a transition to sustainable and resilient farming is the competitiveness strategy that the EU farm sector should adopt, rather than an ultimately self-defeating race to the bottom on environmental standards and resource exploitation. Subsidies to chemical fertiliser companies (in both the short and medium term) should be diverted instead to sustainable alternatives for farmers and help to households facing food insecurity due to food price inflation. Not doing so will simply prolong a harmful status quo, worsen the environmental and climate crisis and divert scarce public resources from the transition.

Long term, as the European Commission has recognised in its 2023 work programme, the only way to ensure adequate food supply and nutrition is with sustainable and resilient food and farming systems, that address both food production and unsustainable consumption. Now is the time to back up these words with political action.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash