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The future of fertiliser use

This POSTnote summarises environmental and economic concerns arising from fertiliser use and the mitigation opportunities via diversification and innovation.

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Fertilisers are composed of three main components in varying proportions: nitrogen phosphorus and potassium, along with other elements that are required in smaller quantities. Fertilisers currently maintain crop yields globally but pose harm to the environment. Artificial and organic fertilisers can have impacts on water quality through leaching; air quality through ammonia emissions; and climate change through nitrous oxide emissions.  

Production of artificial fertiliser is predominately based on non-renewable resources. For instance, the production of nitrogen-based fertilisers use fossil fuels as both a feedstock and a source of energy for the reaction and phosphorus-based fertilisers are typically obtained from mining of non-renewable resources. Recent events and high energy prices have led to a global price surge in artificial fertilisers, with the price of artificial fertilisers increasing substantially for British farmers between 2021 and 2022.  

Commentators agree a range of diversification and innovation of fertilisers could be used to address these concerns including: using renewable resources for artificial fertiliser production; reducing the environmental impact of fertilisers through pollution management; diversifying artificial fertiliser use with organic and bio fertilisers; improving soil health; and, the use of precision application technologies and nutrient planning to improve the efficiency of fertilisers usage.  

Stakeholders state a lack of investment in diversification and innovation is a key challenge, as well as developing an effective evidence base of measures that is transferred to farmers and ensuring that policies implemented constitute a ‘just transition’ approach to reducing the environmental impacts of fertilisers. 

Key Points

  • Fertilisers are a key component of the food system. They affect food security, both nationally and internationally. The UK currently relies on imported artificial fertilisers for domestic crop production.  
  • There are economic and environmental concerns arising from the use of artificial fertilisers. These include price volatility and long-term impacts on soil health, air quality, water quality and biodiversity.   
  • There are opportunities to improve fertiliser production, usage and management that could reduce their impact on the environment.   
  • Alternatives to artificial fertilisers, such as organic and bio-fertilisers, allow for diversification in fertiliser type, but there are barriers to their uptake.  
  • Innovations in technologies and practices, such as precision application, improving nutrient uptake and soil health, may lead to more efficient fertiliser use and reduce nutrient losses. 
  • Diversification and innovation could help to reduce the environmental impact of fertilisers whilst maintaining food security. However, it requires investment, cooperation, an effective evidence base and ‘just transition’ approaches. 

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:  

Members of the POST Board* 

Will Brown, Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs* 

Katy Orford, Comisiwn y Senedd, Senedd Commission* 

Eleanor Reed, Natural England  

Andrew Clark, National Farmers’ Union 

Diane Mitchell, National Farmers’ Union* 

Alastair Heinrich, National Farmers’ Union* 

Ian Ludgate, National Farmers’ Union* 

Philippa Arnold, National Farmers’ Union* 

Anthony Hopkins, National Farmers’ Union* 

Harry Langford, CHAP 

Richard Glass, CHAP 

Alexander McCormack, CHAP 

Robert Shaw, N2 applied 

Polina Lisitsina, N2 applied 

Richard Tranter, University of Reading 

Mark Sutton, Ecotoxicological researcher at UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology 

Tony Miller, John Innes Centre 

Megan Tresise, ADAS* 

Kate Smith, ADAS 

Kate Storer, ADAS 

Lei Wang, British Geological Survey 

Diane Purchase, Middlesex university 

Jack Bobo, Food Systems Institute at the University of Nottingham * 

Erick Bandala, Desert Research Institute 

Sacha Mooney, Hounsfield Facility at the University of Nottingham  

Rachel Gomes, University of Nottingham  

Nasmille Larke-Mejia, Quadram Institute Bioscience* 

Chris Dawson, Independent consultant for the British Survey of Fertiliser Practice 

Giles Oldroyd, University of Cambridge 

Vicki Hird, Sustain Alliance 

Hannah Blitzer, Wildlife and countryside link* 

Gareth Morgan, Soil Association 

Ellie Roxburgh, Soil Association* 

Clair Mike, Linking Environment And Farming 

*denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing

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Channel website: https://www.parliament.uk/post

Original article link: https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pn-0710/

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