31 August 2023

More than a nutrient: Nitrogen fertilizers and sustainable food systems

More than a nutrient: Nitrogen fertilizers and sustainable food systems

By Aviv Bar Tal, Global Vice President Commercial Nitrogen

The world faces an immense challenge: we will need to produce about 70% more food by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people. The problem is intensified by agriculture’s extreme vulnerability to climate change, which has caused rising temperatures, shifting agroecosystem borders, invasive pests and crops, and more frequent extreme weather events. On farms, these climate impacts are reducing crop yields, the nutritional quality of major grains, and lowering livestock productivity.

We cannot produce more food without nitrogen fertilizers, which today account for 50% of food production and are essential to maximize yields and minimize soil degradation. Nitrogen fertilizers are the key nutrient for crop growth and development, as high-quality nutrient-rich soil maximizes farm yields and ensures healthy crops. However, agriculture contributes approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and bears the impacts of climate change, threatening food security, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

Incorrect application of synthetic fertilizers on the field results in negative environmental impacts such as nitrogen contamination in water, soil degradation, and loss of biodiversity. To ensure food security and also protect the environment, global food and agriculture systems need to transition to more sustainable practices.

The transition to a more resource-efficient, environmentally friendly, and low carbon agricultural system can only be achieved through meaningful partnerships between the agricultural and food industries, the employment of sustainable farming techniques, and the adoption of digital and technological innovations. Crop yield optimization through more efficient fertilizer use and lower water consumption is essential. Fundamentally, the world needs to produce more and better while utilizing fewer resources.

The nitrogen fertilizer industry supports this transition through multiple tools that address fertilizer climate impacts along its life cycle while ensuring food security and preventing the allocation of more land for farming, including:

1. Reducing the embedded carbon footprint of nitrogen fertilizers through low-carbon and renewable feedstocks.

Ammonia is the basis of nitrogen fertilizers and its production accounts for about 2% of total final energy consumption, virtually all of which comes from fossil fuels today. In 2021, the IEA published the ammonia technology roadmap, which outlines technological pathways to significantly reduce GHG emissions from ammonia production including electrolysis, pyrolysis, using biomass and carbon capture and storage.

By decarbonizing the ammonia production process, downstream nitrogen fertilizers become lower-carbon-produced products. Today, OCI Global is one of the few ISCC Plus certified low-carbon and renewable ammonia producers, which is used to produce OCI’s lower-carbon calcium ammonium nitrate (known as Nutramon) and urea ammonia nitrate. Both are independently certified as having amongst the lowest carbon footprints in the world, proving that low-carbon and green nitrogen fertilizer products can be achieved.

Today, applying our lower-carbon Nutramon to produce lower-carbon wheat and flour results in a reduction of about 14% of the carbon footprint of a baguette, while the applying lower-carbon Nutramon as a fertilizer has a very marginal cost on feed and food products. For example, the additional cost to produce a baguette using wheat grown with lower-carbon Nutramon is €0.0028, meaning there is nearly zero additional cost to the consumer.

This is just the start. There is promising momentum in a more large-scale ammonia transition to low-carbon and renewable feedstocks. Examples include OCI Global’s 1.1 million metric ton per year blue ammonia greenfield project in Texas, which once commissioned will be the largest of its kind in the world, and OCI Global’s green ammonia project in Egypt, which has successfully produced and sold commercial green ammonia. However, these pathways require significant capital investment and still result in higher cost of production compared to the status quo. Without collaboration throughout the ammonia and nitrogen fertilizer value chain, and crucially without regulatory and financial incentives, the transition to low-carbon and renewable ammonia and nitrogen fertilizers will remain out of reach for producers.

2. Developing products that will enhance nutrient use efficiency (NUE), thereby reducing losses and increasing yield.

There is clear evidence that inhibitors (nitrification inhibitors and urase inhibitors) are indispensable means on the road to net zero scope 3 emissions to decarbonize the nitrogen fertilizer industry. They have been recognized in numerous scientific publications within the recent decades as having numerous positive effects, including:

  • Enhanced nitrogen management: Urease inhibitors regulate the conversion of urea into ammonia, reducing nitrogen losses through volatilization. Nitrification inhibitors slow down the conversion of ammonium to nitrate by inhibiting nitrifying bacteria. This delay reduces nitrogen leaching, as nitrate is more susceptible to leaching as ammonium. By preserving ammonium forms, nitrification inhibitors increase the availability of nitrogen for plant uptake, improving crop productivity.
  • Minimized greenhouse gas emissions: The excessive release of greenhouse gases, particularly N2O, from agricultural activities contributes to climate change. Urease inhibitors and nitrification inhibitors effectively mitigate these emissions. Urease inhibitors reduce ammonia volatilization, a significant source of N2O emissions. Nitrification inhibitors inhibit the production of nitrate, a precursor of N2O. Nitrification inhibitors minimize the availability of nitrogen compounds for denitrification, thereby reducing N2O emissions. Consequently, the use of these inhibitors helps farmers in their efforts to mitigate climate change and meet sustainability targets.
  • Improved water quality: Urease inhibitors play a critical role in reducing nutrient losses and protecting water quality. Urase inhibitors reduce the volatilization of ammonia, preventing its deposition in water bodies. By preserving ammonium forms, nitrification inhibitors reduce nitrogen losses through leaching, thereby safeguarding water quality. Implementing these inhibitors in agricultural practice promotes sustainable farming by minimizing the environmental impact on aquatic ecosystems.   
  • Improved farm economics: implementing urease and nitrification inhibitors at farms is straightforward and does not require investments in specialized equipment. The retarded conversion of the nitrogen forms in soils enables more temporal flexibility in nitrogen fertilizer application, easing the farm management in tight spring season. Increased nitrogen use efficacy and smoother nitrogen supply enables reduction of fertilizer application rates with gain in productivity. Hence, using urease and nitrification inhibitors elevate farm economy and help farmers to keep compliant with rules and regulations.  

Accordingly, inhibitors applied with nitrogen fertilizers positively impact the nitrogen metabolism in soils. This reduces GHG emission directly, reduces the risk of nitrate leaching and ammonia emissions, results in improved nutrient use efficiency (NUE) to lower environmental burden, and in turn stabilizes food supply at high productivity levels while protecting natural areas against change to agriculture, and protect marginal areas against intensification.

3. Collaborating across the value chain to promote sustainable intensification.

However, none of the above can be achieved without the right regulatory support and incentives for low carbon fertilizers and sustainable fertilizers, and without collaboration across the value chain.

Firstly, farmers need to be incentivized and supported with the right tools and education programs to apply sustainable intensification practices to maximize the use and efficiency of existing farmland while minimizing the environmental impact on the same land area. Measures include:

  • The use of harmonized standards and indicators such as the NUE Indicator, for example. This was developed by the EU Nitrogen Expert Panel , which is able to provide information about resource use efficiency.
  • The use of precision farming tools and techniques that can help farmers to effectively assess crop nutrient requirements.
  • An increase in the replacement of conventional mineral fertilizers inhibited fertilizers, which improve fertilizer use efficiency, mitigate climate change and reduce nitrogen losses to the environment significantly.
  • The adoption of “4R” principles: using the right fertilizer source at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.The use of targeted fertigation techniques.
  • The use of low carbon and renewable ammonia in fertilizer production, helping to reduce overall Scope 1 GHG emissions.

Secondly, public policy needs to evolve as it has an important influence on farmers’ business decisions. Some established policies, having achieved their initial objectives, now create perverse incentives for inefficient fertilizer use and should be reformed. In other areas, new regulations, payments or emissions pricing schemes may be needed. The appropriate levers will vary by geography and farm type, and those making reforms should carefully consider the impacts on farmers.

Finally, the economics must make sense for not just the farmers, but also the producers. Accordingly, governments also provide incentives and funding opportunities to ammonia and nitrogen fertilizer producers who carry the burden of having to invest in technologies and alternative feedstocks without commensurate economics to support the transition

Together, we can achieve food security and net zero, but today, the barriers to scale the solutions outlined are immense. It takes collaboration across the value chain from governments, producers, and the farmers to achieve our global goals.

A version of this article was first published in World Fertilizer Magazine’s September issue.

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