Future of the EU’s agricultural policy: what about nutrient management?

02 August 2018
By Tiffanie Stéphani Agriculture and Environment Manager at Fertilizers Europe

Article published in Fertilizer Focus Magazine

On 1 June 2018, the European Commission presented its legislative proposals on the future of food and farming, i.e. the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). The new proposals are designed to support European farmers and ensure Europe’s food security and a resilient, sustainable and competitive agricultural sector. In the light of the upcoming Brexit and new priorities of the European Union, the European Commission proposed a reduction of around 5% of the budget for CAP for the period 2021-27.

With its new legislative proposals, the EU Commission aims to grant more flexibility to European countries in the implementation of the policy and also sets higher ambitions on environment and climate objectives for the agricultural sector. As far as plant nutrition and fertilization are concerned, for the first time the EU Commission is proposing that EU countries introduce a Farm Sustainability Tool for Nutrients for farmers.

But concretely, what do the Commission proposals mean for farmers and the European fertilizer industry?


Towards a paradigm shift

Based on nine objectives, the intention of the European Commission is that the future CAP continues to support the European farming model with an increased focus on the environment and climate, encouraging the transition towards a more sustainable agricultural sector and the development of vibrant rural areas. Further objectives are linked to ensuring a fair income to farmer, increase competitiveness and ensure a fairer functioning of the food chain. 

Aiming to achieve such a diverse set of objectives at the same time, it is crucial that the new CAP provides a strong policy framework that supports EU governments and farmers in delivering on the expectations imposed on them. This is why the European Commission proposes a system, aiming at simplifying and modernising the way the CAP works for farmers and EU countries alike. The “one-size-fits all” approach will be changed to give more freedom to EU countries, letting them decide on the way to meet common objectives set at EU level and on how to best respond to the needs of their farmers and rural communities.

In practice, each EU member country will carry out an extensive analysis of its specific needs and draw up a so called “CAP strategic plan”, on the basis of the “SWOT analysis”. The plan will set out how each country will use CAP funding to meet their needs, including the tools to be used and establishing its own specific targets while complying with the overall objectives set by the EU.

However, this new approach naturally poses different concerns. It is questionable whether the new CAP will deliver the long-awaited simplification, which farmers have been asking for years, a concern that is shared by many stakeholders and especially farmers’ organisations in Brussels. Also the question arises whether the increased flexibility in the implementation of national strategies will not be double-edged. In fact, there is a growing worry that it would rather compromise the current level-playing field for European farmers.

A bigger focus on nutrient management

The Farm Sustainability Tool for Nutrients was proposed by the EU regulators (as part of the legislative proposal on CAP strategic plans) with the aim to enable a platform for on-farm nutrient management that would help reduce ammonia and N2O emissions from the agriculture sector and improve water quality in Europe. Such a tool would compile information from satellite data, soil sampling and land parcel information and would be directly accessible to farmers in order to help them make informed decisions on nutrient requirements. The principle of this Tool should be agreed as part of the specific law setting the so called CAP strategic plans (one per EU Member State), while the details should be fixed at a later stage by the EU Commission via further legislation.

Fertilizers Europe (the European association that represents the majority of fertilizers producers in Europe) sees the proposal of this Tool as a positive step forward. For many years, EU’s agricultural policy fell a bit too short in encouraging farmers’ efforts towards good nutrient management, which is crucial if the agri-food sector wants to achieve the set of EU’s environmental objectives. Fertilization has often been criticized for causing pollution as some nutrients, like nitrates and phosphorous, can be leached to surface and ground water when the plant cannot absorb them. However, it is not the use of fertilizers as such, being organic or mineral, that creates environmental problems, but it is the inappropriate fertilization practices that can have negative environmental impacts. We must not forget that fertilization is deeply connected with agricultural productivity and food production, and plays a vital role in ensuring food security for today and tomorrow. Thus, a farm sustainability tool will definitely enhance best agricultural management practices in Europe and enable farmers to meet the double challenge of producing food for all at an affordable price while reaching the environmental targets.

Even if the trend towards fewer nutrient losses to the environment is already positive in the EU, there is further room for improvement. In several EU countries, nutrient management plans are already today considered as part of the good agricultural practices. Still those are sometimes very strict, targeting only the environmental aspects and not enough focused on economic and agronomic impacts. This is where a Farm Sustainability Tool for Nutrients can make the difference by being a decision-support instrument for farmers, and not a control mechanism. From the perspective of Fertilizers Europe, the tool should:

  • Help farmers to reach better yields, and possibly savings on fertilizer application by focusing on the needs of the plants.
  • Promote balanced plant nutrition, the improvement of crop quality and an increase of nutrient use efficiency.

Such a Nutrient Management Tool should not be based on the quantity of nutrients applied, but rather on the nutrient use efficiency. The Nitrogen Use Efficiency indicator developed by the EU Nitrogen Expert Panel (for more information can be one of the metrics that would perfectly fit in the tool.

Furthermore, the CAP post-2020 could also support good nutrient stewardship by encouraging the up-take of precision nutrition by farmers; through the use of products with better formulations, micro-nutrients and agronomic additives (like nitrification inhibitors for instance) combined with a knowledge-based application of mineral fertilizers to support agronomic and environmental efficiency. As the proposal of the EU Commission regarding nutrient management is quite ambitious, it is unclear whether it will survive through the upcoming legislative proposals, also because many EU countries are now afraid of all the new provisions, which they will have to implement as part of the paradigm shift for the CAP post-2020.


Mixed reactions from stakeholders so far

Since the publication of the Commission proposals, a permanent conversation is ongoing in Brussels. Many stakeholders are rather sceptical towards the new framework. For instance, the European association of farmers and agri-cooperatives (Copa-Cogeca) stated it was “very concerned” about the impact of the proposals on farmers, citing an “erosion” in direct subsidies, which it said was crucial for farmers to continue producing food. Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations do not seem very convinced about the proposals either, as warnings from their side were far starker. Greenpeace considered that the reform “could spell disaster for the environment,” while BirdLife Europe saw “nature in peril as Europe faces another decade of biodiversity-killing intensive farming.” The European Environmental Bureau said that the EU’s “timid farm ‘reform’ [ignored] environmental crisis on Europe’s farmland.”

Forum on fertilizers and nutrients for growth

“Forum on fertilizers and nutrients for growth” chaired by the Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Julie Girling (EPP, UK) and MEP Peter Jahr (EPP, Germany) and organized by Fertilizers Europe in July 2018 was an opportunity to bring together representatives from the European Parliament and the European Commission as well as some of the most relevant stakeholders related to CAP post 2020 to discuss about the policy just one month after the publication of the Commission’s proposals. Amongst others, we heard Director-General, Rudolf Mögele (Directorate-General for agriculture of the EU Commission) and MEP Esther Herranz García (EPP, Spain), the recently appointed Rapporteur of the European Parliament on the CAP strategic plans. The forum provided a unique platform where all stakeholders could engage in open discussions, share their viewpoints and concerns and provide the European circle of agricultural stakeholders with concrete and creative solutions for the future.


 Moving forward

For the time being, Fertilizers Europe is strongly convinced the CAP post-2020 must at the same time maintain agricultural productivity growth and foster an even better environmental performance of the farming sector. And this is basically the intention of the Commission in its recent legislative proposals. The new approach will make the governments of the EU countries more accountable about how the EU budget is spent, and this is a good thing. Such a move also finally acknowledges that farmers, from Sweden to Corsica, and from Brittany to Romania, cannot all apply the very same measures.

If Europe wants to be forward-looking, then the CAP post-2020 must promote knowledge-intensive farming and tap into the potential of the increasing amount of data available, in order to enable all types of farmers in Europe to become more competitive and have a better environmental performance at the same time. For Fertilizers Europe, this means that the new CAP should include a focus on precision plant nutrition and the newly proposed Farm Sustainability Tool for Nutrients – two approaches to enable farmers to meet the plants’ needs and the environmental expectations of European citizens.