Team: The invincible
A raft of strategies is being trailed in Europe to turn nutrient-rich farm waste such as chicken feathers, cow dung and plant stalks into green Fertilizer. Full of phosphorus and nitrogen, recycled products could help reduce intensive agriculture’s emissions and reliance on Fertilizer imports.
European agriculture produces an abundance of high quality food, but also massive amounts of waste from crops and farm animals, including about 1.4 billion tones of manure each year. Farm waste is bursting with nutrients, but these are often in complex organic molecules, which take time to break down into minerals for crop plants to use. Manure is voluminous, difficult to transport and usually generated far from crop fields. Consequently, farmers rely on chemical Fertilizer that is often imported into Europe. While the EU market for Fertilizer is valued at between €20 - 25 billion per year, synthetic Fertilizer accounts for 80% of products. The nitrogen is made by taking the chemical from the air and using energy from fossil fuels to convert it into ammonium salts that plants easily consume. Phosphorous, the other main ingredient in chemical Fertilizer, is made from rocks mined mostly in Morocco, but also China and the US. Meanwhile, nutrients spread onto farmland can leach into rivers and lakes, causing algal blooms and fish deaths, or evaporate as greenhouse gases. ‘We have too many nutrients flowing around in Europe, causing environmental problems,’ said Professor Erik Meers, an environmental chemist at Ghent University in Belgium. ‘We also have an increasing amount of chemical Fertilizer, nitrogen and phosphate, being used.’ An estimated 13.6 million tones of nitrogen and 1.8 million tones of phosphorus enter European agriculture each year through Fertilizer, but also the crops used in animal feed. ‘We are not recycling all the nutrients that we could re-use,’ said Dr Victor Riau Arenas, a scientist at the Institute of Agri-food Research and Technology in Catalonia, Spain. He leads a project called Circular Agronomics that aims to boost nutrient recycling in the agricultural food chain and to help reduce emissions. ‘We aim to convert the linear chain we have today into a circular chain by recycling nutrients.' With new EU legislation in June 2019 making it easier to sell fertilizing products made from recycled materials, Dr Riau and Prof. Meers are among the researchers now working to extract pure nutrients from organic waste to produce sustainable bagged Fertilizer. Microbes The first challenge is processing the waste. Chemical Fertilizer arrives at farm gates in bags with mineral nutrients that are ready to use. Raw animal and plant waste, however, must first be broken down by microbes before plants can use them. ‘Huge amounts of nutrients are present in waste in organic form and are not efficient for plant production,’ Prof. Meers said. ‘That is why farmers tend to like chemical Fertilizer. Precision feed To help farming become more efficient, in Catalonia, Circular Agronomics will in future use solar heating to process and dry manure from pigs in order to produce Fertilizers. They will also precision feed dairy cows to cut down on manure and emissions, while a pilot plant in Germany will be developed to recover nitrogen and phosphorus from food industry waste. Dr. Riau says that since livestock and arable agriculture are currently responsible for the release of substantial quantities of ammonia and other greenhouse gases, processing this waste will help slash the emissions that are causing the climate emergency. ‘We will reduce the use of chemical Fertilizer, which will reduce costs, but also the environmental impact of agriculture on soils and leaching of nitrates into groundwaters,’ he said.
BY TEAM: THE INVINCIBLE (B.voc - Horticulture - first year - group no. 2)