Efficiency standards could help reduce farming pollution

15 October 2018

A new report has urged the agriculture sector to adopt measures similar to the fuel-efficiency standards set by the automotive industry to reduce nitrogen pollution caused by fertilisers.
Georgina Hines

Adopting a policy modelled after the automotive industry’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for fertiliser production could produce $5-8bn in economic benefits for the US corn sector by 2030, according to a new joint report by New York University and Princeton University.

By gradually increasing the number of enhanced-efficiency fertilisers (EEFs) used in farming compared to traditional fertilisers, the study found that the sector could significantly reduce nitrogen pollution, which has become a major environmental concern.

The report estimates that increasing EEF use over a ten-year period – up to 20% of sales by 2020 and up to 30% by 2030 – will lead to substantial income growth, from both industry profits, and environment and health gains from a reduction in pollution. EEFs are currently used on only 12% of the available US cropland.

‘A CAFE-style approach to reducing nitrogen pollution could provide powerful incentives for fertiliser manufacturers to learn where and how enhanced-efficiency fertilisers work best, and ultimately to develop more technically sophisticated nitrogen products tailored to specific crops, climates and soil conditions,’ the report says.

‘Moreover, the farm lobby is an extremely powerful political force in many countries,’ it notes. ‘Consequently, new policy options for addressing this environmental issue need to be explored.’

While EEFs are commonly more expensive than traditional fertilisers, less is needed to treat the same number of crops – similar to how fuel-efficient cars need less gas or diesel – which could create profits for farmers.

The report states that the effects of this policy change could be seen much quicker compared to the CAFE standards used by the automotive industry. While cars are only purchased every several years on average, fertilisers are bought far more often and therefore the benefits of EEFs could be seen almost immediately.

‘Although the heterogeneity of agricultural, climatic, and all political systems across the world requires a range of policy approaches to address the nitrogen pollution issue, industry-focused technology-forcing policies could be a promising option for reducing nitrogen losses, even as we push our planet to produce far more food,’ the study says.  

DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0143-8

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