After the "green revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, the rate of agricultural growth around the world has slowed. Growth in the yields of wheat, rice and maize have all declined in developing countries since 1980 and today growth in agricultural productivity in wester nEurope is almost static. To compound the problem, the world's agricultural land base is shrinking due to increasing urbanisation,soil erosion and nutrient exhaustion.
A large number of regions are also affected by alarming levels of water scarcity. The sustainability of European agriculture is closely linked to good agricultural practice (GAP). Agricultural experts, legislators and providers of agricultural inputs all have a role to play in promoting it. For its part, the European fertilizer industry has developed advanced farm management strategies to optimise crop yields and reduce environmental impact.
Higher crop yields mean that the land currently farmed in Europe is sufficient to meet its anticipated food and energy needs.
Compound nitrogen fertilizers such as AN (ammonium nitrate) have traditionally been favoured by farmers in Europe as being the best suited to its soil and climate. More crops are now produced with less fertilizer than 20 years ago and European farmers' nitrogen-use efficiency leads the world. Fertilizers are increasingly tailor-made to meet specific crop requirements and precision application techniques cater for different locations and soil types, as well as weather conditions.
Modern technology like GPS-based soil and biomass mapping can now be used to define exact nutrient demand. Other agricultural techniques such as crop rotation and minimum tillage also help maintain the soil's nutritional quality. Education of the farming community in the timing and dosing of nitrogen fertilizers is increasingly widespread. As a result, the yields achieved with the appropriate product are high and their impact on soil, water or air quality are far better managed.
Europe is the world’s most efficient manufacturer of compound nitrogen fertilizers. The energy efficiency of ammonia production in Europe is close to the technological limit and an increasing number of its nitric acid plants incorporate advanced emission abatement technology.
It takes a significant amount of energy to produce mineral fertilizers, however they offer a positive energy balance. By increasing the yield and the intrinsic energy content of a crop, fertilizers enable them to produce six times more energy than that used to make, distribute and apply the fertilizer. This energy supports human and animal nutrition or the increasing demand for fuel from renewable sources.
Although producing fertilizers is energy intensive, they greatly increase the positive energy balance of agriculture. Fertilizers help plants store more energy. Energy that will be used to feed people and animals or used as biofuel.
Farming is highly dependant on climatic conditions. Extremeweather and the increasing variability of seasonality not onlyaffect crop yields and quality, they can also bring new plantand animal diseases.
The expansion of farmland in many parts of the developing world has had a major impact on the environment. Of the 25.5% of global GHG emissions currently attributed to agriculture,12% are due to changes in land use.
Europe's long tradition of agriculture means that its direct changes in land use are not large. The most relevant emissions resulting from agriculture are nitrous oxide (N2O), from organic sources of nitrogen and fertilizer use, and methane (CH4), primarily from livestock production.
Fertilizers make land use more efficient, helping to reduce environmental emissions from farming.
Different types of nitrogen fertilizer have different environmental impacts, as can be seen from the comparison of the carbon footprint of different nitrogen fertilizers opposite.
Although urea's higher N content can reduce its distribution, storage and application costs, when the emissions from the soil resulting from its use are included, the position changes.
With the availability of new fertilizers that limit environmental emissions, the main focus of future greenhouse gasmitigation is on promoting good agricultural practice, which has increased nitrogen use efficiency by 45% since 1985.
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