Today’s fertiliser production is responsible for about 1.2% of the global energy consumption. The production largely relies on finite mineral resources, such as phosphate rock, a critical raw material. At the same time, many waste or residue materials produced in Europe contain valuable nutrients. These nutrients are underutilised and often generate environmental pollution.
Scientific research by JRC has helped to ensure that materials with a clear agronomic value and low risks for the environment and human health can enter the single market.
Based on its expertise on nutrients, JRC has also been involved in developing scientific criteria for the safe use of processed manure in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. Moreover, JRC has carried out a risk assessment study on pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions from soil linked to the application of sewage sludge to support the revision of the Sewage Sludge Directive. Finally, JRC has contributed to the development of the Integrated Nutrient Management Action Plan (INMAP).
All of this happens in close collaboration with Commission departments for Environment (DG ENV), for Internal market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW), for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI), and for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE).
In 2019, the Fertilising Products Regulation (EU) 2019/1009 was adopted, opening the EU single market to new types of fertilisers.
The new Regulation is based on the principle that various types of fertiliser products, called Product Function Categories or PFCs, can be created by mixing “ingredients”, called Component Material Categories or CMCs.
JRC research underpins more than half of all CMCs, all related to waste-derived materials, production residues or secondary raw materials. These CMCs include materials such as compost, digestates, by-products from industrial processes, struvite and similar precipitated phosphate salts from wastewater, ashes from incineration of sewage sludge and other waste materials, biochar and recovered nutrients from gas cleaning.
JRC has conducted in-depth market analyses and risk assessments to ensure these materials are both useful and safe to use in agriculture.
The Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) aims at protecting water from diffuse pollution (nitrates and eutrophication) from agricultural activity. To this end, the Directive establishes restrictions on the use of nitrogen-containing fertilising materials in areas with nitrate pollution in waters (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones - NVZ).
Manure and manure-based fertilisers are subject to more stringent restrictions than nitrogen-containing mineral/chemical fertilisers. More specifically, in NVZ the Nitrates Directive restricts the use of manure, including processed manure, to 170 kg N/hectare per year, corresponding more or less to the excretions of two dairy cows. This maximum limit for manure-based fertilising materials in polluted areas is based on the consideration that the associated environmental risk, especially the nitrogen leaching risk, is higher for manure than for other fertilisers.
At the same time, there is an opportunity to encourage the use of recycled nutrients that can replace nutrients otherwise obtained from primary raw materials. The main challenge is to use recycled nutrient resources that have an equal or better environmental performance than the primary nutrient resources they replace.
In this context, efforts are ongoing across the EU to develop manure processing technologies that allow manure to be turned into a safe and agronomically valuable resource that could be more widely used in NVZ. However, the challenge of how to scientifically define sound criteria to ensure the agronomic and environmental performance of these new materials remains.
JRC’s SAFEMANURE project has helped to define which harmonised criteria could be applied to allow nitrogen fertilisers, partially or entirely derived from manure, to be used in areas with water polluted by nitrogen nutrients, following the same provisions applied to nitrogen-containing mineral fertilisers, while ensuring the provision of adequate agronomic benefits.
The Sewage Sludge Directive 86/278/EEC, dating from the year 1986, is one of the oldest pieces of EU legislation. It regulates the protection of the environment, and in particular of the soil, when solid residues from wastewater treatment plants are used in agriculture.
This is a common practice in many EU Member States as the sludge contains nutrients and organic matter, but then again sewage sludge is also a main source of point pollution to the environment.
The JRC is currently supporting EU policies on this Directive through scientific research and feasibility studies for a potential future review of the Directive. This work aims to identify, for instance, relevant organic contaminants that could be present in sludge using exposure modelling techniques, and to compare the global warming impacts across sewage sludge management routes using life cycle assessments.
The JRC work could help to reinforce safeguards in relation to environmental and human health protection from contaminants in sludge, while enhancing the circularity of valuable sludge resources where possible.
As indicated in the Farm to Fork Strategy, biodiversity strategy and circular economy action plan, The Commission will develop with Member States an Integrated Nutrient Management Plan, with a view to ensuring more sustainable application of nutrients and stimulating the markets for recovered nutrients.
This may help to address nutrient pollution at source and increase the sustainability of the livestock sector.
The JRC is currently supporting this work by budgeting nutrient flows in the EU, identifying the nutrient load reductions needed to achieve the goals, and by modelling the impact of simulated measures on nutrient losses across different sectors and Member States.
This work is of direct relevance to Commission departments for Environment (DG ENV), for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI), for Internal market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW), for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), for Climate Action (DG CLIMA), and for Research and Innovation (DG RTD).