Green and/or circular fertilizers are concepts that came to life when the climate problem became clear to us. The concept of circular agriculture was removed from mothballs in order to reduce the import of fertilizers from other countries. The term is interpreted in many different ways. All this does not have to distract from the core question at which it is all about: can sufficient manure be obtained from our own environment to keep agriculture and therefore our food supply going, without having to use fossil fuels?
Three challenges at once
Circular agriculture wants to limit the climate effects of the fertilization of fields and meadows. After all, the production of fertilizer by concentrating nitrogen in the air with great force (fossil energy) releases greenhouse gases. Even though researchers are now qualifying that picture, animal manure actually does the same. After all, animals eat plant material that has been grown one step in the cycle with fertilizers. In addition, we want to reduce the depletion of raw materials by using them over and over again. Policymakers assume that a perpetual motion machine is possible that continues to function without the addition of fossil carbon.
Every local agricultural area determines how much space is left for nature, anywhere in the world
To realize those ideals, people must take into account their two other challenges. They must ensure their food security and maintain biodiversity in nature. It therefore concerns three intertwined challenges: 1) reuse, 2) food security and 3) biodiversity.
It is not just about the Netherlands, but about humanity in the world as a whole. There are no national borders for greenhouse gases and climate. The same goes for food, just think of global prices on commodity markets.
It even applies to biodiversity. Each local agricultural area determines how much space is left for nature, anywhere in the world. The efficiency of the production systems used in one place determines where and how much biodiversity is threatened elsewhere. Both above and below ground.
In any case, humans, their food and their activities are still responsible for both climate change and declining biodiversity. Until now, we have managed to maintain our food security and even to reach unprecedented heights in history.
From hunter-gatherer to farmer: the end of humans as ordinary animals
When man made the step from hunter-gatherer to arable farmer, horticulturist and livestock farmer, it became clear that he would become very different from other animals. Cultivated crops and livestock provided more food security. This accelerated the growth of our species. It became the start of a vicious circle, more people-more food-more people-and so on.
That process towards ‘more food’ for people is accompanied by a number of crucial trends in agriculture, the dominance of which has changed over time.
In the block below we outline three historical phases. In different parts of the world they cover different periods in the era. For example, Europe has started phase 3, while large parts of Africa are barely out of 1 (simply because fertilizer is expensive and difficult to supply due to bad roads).
Agriculture uses the local environment to make food production possible with raw materials and labor on its own land. Just 170 years ago, that led to the fear of starvation.
This stage is characterized by:
A. Reclamation of forests and other natural ecosystems for the cultivation of annual food crops in particular. In addition, the fraction of the plant that is suitable for human consumption is increasing, at the expense of the amount of plant parts that are less or poorly digestible (such as straw) that are required to maintain the soil organic matter.
B. Growing integration of arable farming and livestock farming, with the main function of livestock shifting from supplying proteins to transporting organic matter with its nutrients from the Brands (desert lands around farming communities) to the es grounds (literally: sowing grounds, the cultivated areas on which arable farming is practiced). Natural vegetation and their soils are being exhausted in favor of maintaining the fertility of cultivated land on which arable and horticultural farming is practiced. The felling of trees and shrubs for firewood and utility wood increases the depletion of the natural vegetation, through additional transport of organic matter with its nutrients from the wild environment towards the village.
C. Continued population growth degrades vegetation and soils, resulting in erosion and desertification. The supply of nutrients for the fields is stagnating.
An attempt was made to compensate for this by excavating and using mounds and graves in cemeteries. That was not enough. With the on-going large-scale shipping, the supply of natural fertilizers such as ‘guano‘ or chili nitrate from elsewhere possible. Sodium nitrate came from Bolivia, Chile and Peru. The manure was so wanted and needed in Europe and the USA that war was waged for it from 1879 – 1884, between Chile with the support of England against both other countries. Chile won.
It is less than a hundred years ago that famine reigned in central Germany, because the surrounding areas could not provide enough food; the productions were far too low. Few who have gained their practical experience in modern farming realize that less than a hundred years ago the agricultural and horticultural business was a so-called circulation business, the yields being determined by the stock of farmyard manure that could be prepared.
The old agronomist Prof. Ir. J. Hudig noted kort na WOII: “Chili nitre is the oldest of fertilizers, and has performed its role admirably. It is less than a hundred years ago that famine reigned in central Germany, because the surrounding areas could not provide enough food; the productions were far too low. Few who have acquired their practical experience in modern farming realize that less than a hundred years ago the agricultural and horticultural business was a so-called circulation business, the yields being determined by the stock of farmyard manure that could be prepared. Low yields give little manure and this in turn low yields; production increase was therefore excluded. The war was fast on its way to take us back to those times! When one considers that in those circumstances harvests of, say, 200 hectoliters of potatoes per ha, 25 hectoliters of wheat and 30 hectoliters of rye were counted among the high, it is quite understandable that a century ago the situation for Europe was exceedingly bleak.”
A. Man developed from hunter-gatherer to farmer decouples arable farming and livestock farming, while the relative importance of livestock farming for food security increases sharply due to the need for more manure.
B. The pressure on agricultural land is (temporarily) less; thanks to fertilizers, the pastures are no longer needed as a source of nutrients. Degraded land is regenerated. There is reforestation. Worldwide, fertilizer use and forest dynamics are correlated in this way. The lower the fertilizer use, the greater the decrease in forest. In areas with high fertilizer use, however, there is a (slight) expansion of forests.
C. On the other hand, under the influence of the supply of animal feed raw materials such as grain and soybean meal, the former local system of depleting desolate market grounds for ash soils has now become a form of international transport. Local, very intensive livestock farming is at the expense of deforestation elsewhere and the depletion of distant soya fields, for example.
D. In addition, the use of external means of production leads to a higher concentration of greenhouse gases in the air and thus to climate change. In addition to arable and horticultural farming, livestock farming is becoming a significant source of emissions.
E. Agriculture is also becoming a dominant source of nitrogen emissions and deposition, and for phosphate pollution of ground and surface water.
F. In addition, a lot of phosphate is lost through fertilization of crops on phosphate-fixing soils.
A. No more agrochemical inputs: no more fertilizer and no more pesticides, but back to forms of organic agriculture from phase 1 but with renewed knowledge of this, as Anton Nigten showed in a series of three articles on Foodlog.
B. Circular agriculture reinvented: economical with raw materials and especially with phosphate.
C. Towards a green economy: without fossil energy.
Can’t continue as if nothing happened
Thanks to the development of agriculture, mankind has succeeded in increasing food security for a steadily growing world population. But already in the first phase, there was exhaustion of the soil. This manifested itself in a lack of nutrients and soil organic matter. It led to the directly related desertification and the impoverishment of biodiversity as negative side effects. With these words we simplify the course of business. In reality, in regions with very fertile soils, there is first talk of an increase in plant biodiversity. It is only when exhaustion in favor of the crops desired by humans that the dominance of highly competing species is lost.
In the second phase, the increasing use of fossil fuels in agriculture contributed to climate change, while mining (phosphorus and potassium) and transport of feed and food (raw materials) lead to nutrient depletion in some parts of the world and to polluting concentration in other parts. This pollution is mainly caused by nitrogen and phosphate. Where there is depletion, desertification continues, with all the negative consequences for biodiversity. You can’t continue as if nothing happened.
Therefore, humanity is now at the beginning of the third phase. Green circular fertilizers are seen as important means to meet the three challenges of mankind: food security without climate change while preserving and enhancing biodiversity. In the coming days we will bring you thoughts with which you can determine for yourself whether people can eat circularly. We would love to hear your additions, critiques and questions.
Wednesday 3 November part 2: From urban cesspool to fertilizer and back again. This series is made possible by farmers’ cooperative Agrifirm, without any editorial influence. Farmers need perspective and want a clear picture of the fertilizers they can use in the next 30 years. That image does not yet exist and can therefore be developed in the openness of a non-ideological and as factual conversation as possible. All this in preparation for (political) opinion-forming and setting standards.
We want to thank the writer of this write-up for this remarkable material
Green circular fertilizers – What are they, why do we want them and are we going to make it? – Food log