20 September 2023

“There’s no Net Zero with nitrogen fertilizers”, Soil Association says


According to the British association, fossil-based nitrogen fertilizers are an obstacle to achieving Net Zero. In contrast, “there is a need to support nature-friendly approaches”

by Matteo Cavallito


The continued use of fossil-derived chemical fertilizers puts the UK’s net zero emissions targets at risk. This is argued by the Soil Association, a charity organization based in Bristol. The message comes along with a petition asking the London government to develop a plan to phase out these products in agriculture.

The Soil Association, in particular, calls on the government to set a target for reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers by helping farmers set aside their use and supporting nature-friendly approaches starting with organic farming.

Agriculture is still addicted to fossil fuel

The initiative helps to lift the debate on the link between agriculture and fossil fuels. These sources, in fact, are used in the extraction and production of essential elements and substances such as hydrogen and ammonia that form the basis of nitrogen fertilizers themselves. Which, the Soil Association notes, remain extremely problematic, however.

Nitrogen is “a key contributor to climate change when released as nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than CO2,” the organization notes. In addition, farmers’ reliance on fossil fuels “also makes them vulnerable to major price spikes and events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Fertilizers in the crosshairs

Fertilizer use in global soils remains a central issue. Last year, FAO’s Global Assessment of Soil Pollution report highlighted how the impact of the most harmful human activities has grown in the 21st century. In 2018, in particular, the Planet’s soils absorbed 109 million tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. A phenomenon that parallels the growing use of pesticides (more 75 percent on a global scale between 2000 and 2017).

The problems, however, are not confined to soils. A recent study by a group of scientists at Nagoya University in Japan, for example, showed how nitrogen from the soil is a major contributor to the contamination of waterways. And not without consequences. “Nitrate is an essential nutrient for plants and phytoplankton,” the authors explained. “But excessive nitrate levels in streams can damage water quality, cause eutrophication (the over-enrichment of water by nutrients), and pose health risks to animals and humans.”

New solutions are needed

Today, said Soil Association agricultural policy manager Gareth Morgan, “Agriculture and the food system are responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions and failing to address this will mean that the government has simply no prospect of meeting its net zero target.” In this scenario, however, farmers can respond by promoting fertility through respectful agricultural practices involving the use of natural fertilizers and the adoption of other sustainable techniques, starting with crop rotations.

Emissioni nocive settore AFOLU (Agricoltura, foreste e usi del suolo) - Fonte: IPCC

Harmful emissions AFOLU sector (Agriculture, forestry and land uses) – Source: IPCC

Finally, the Soil Association mentions a study by the French think tank IDDRI, which found that if Europe adopted to an all-organic or agroecological farming system coupled with key changes in people’s diets, a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be experienced. Half of this decline would come from abandoning fossil-based nitrogen fertilizers.