How transitioning from nitrogen fertilisers will decarbonise the Netherlands’ food and agriculture industry

October 4, 2023

Jacob Ruiter, CEO Benelux at InnoEnergy, explores how transitioning away from nitrogen fertilisers will help decarbonise the food and agriculture sector in the Netherlands and beyond.

The Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, has pledged to halve its nitrogen-based emissions by 2030. And, in a region where agriculture accounts for 46% of the country’s output of the potent greenhouse gas, all fingers point to the nation’s farmers. The sector is one of the largest exporters in the world, so it has never been more critical to get this right.

But the journey so far has not been without its ups and downs, met with strong opposition from farmers and reactions from the wider population, contributing to a surprise surge in votes for the rural populist party, the Farmer-Citizen Movement, in a recent election.

Now, the country is poised to revolutionise its agriculture sector, with success hinging on the industry backing emerging technologies that have the potential to accelerate progress towards 2050 net zero goals.

Where are we now?

We have been using nitrogen fertilisers for a little over 100 years, utilising a plentiful atmospheric gas to ensure food supply for our increasing global population. But, as with many of our post-industrial sectors, new technologies are rising to the challenge of doing the same job as their ‘dirty’ predecessors, but with a green flair.

And the appetite to make the move is certainly there, the Dutch government recently announced €28 billion in climate funding to help the country meet the EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ goals, a significant step in the region’s broader energy transition. But the plans are certainly not met without resistance, and even though we have known the impact of using nitrogen fertilisers in agriculture for some time, little has been done to reduce levels in the region – meaning a drastic overhaul is now required.

The subject has to be broached with sensitivity, and it is one that is currently polarising the nation. A recently announced scheme from the Dutch government has allocated €1.61 billionto compensate farmers for closing their livestock farms and while well-intended, this was met with confrontation from farmers who are rightly worried about their livelihoods.

It is clear that a multi-pronged approach will be key to solving the nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands, further to a deduction in livestock farming is the emergence of cleantech start-ups working hard to lead on decarbonising the sector.

One of these start-ups is the Swedish company C-Green, which recently opened a pilot plant in Rotterdam. C-Green has a compact, robust and efficient process solution to convert wet biowaste into solid hydrochar, which can be used for many applications, biofuel, or soil improvement.

Another is FertigHy, founded by a global consortium representing the entire value chain. It will build and operate several large-scale low-carbon fertiliser projects, integrating green hydrogen to decarbonise the food chain.

An initial plant in Spain will produce more than one million metric tonnes per year of low-carbon nitrogen-based fertilisers from 100% renewable electricity, with construction planned to start in 2025. This low-carbon fertiliser will help farmers reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond the Netherlands

Looking wider than Holland, European farmers apply over 11 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser each year, and the agriculture sector is responsible for ~13% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, at a time of peak gas prices, the industry saw a 149% increase in the price of these nitrogen fertilisers for EU farmers in September 2022 compared with September 2021. When the unsustainable levels of emissions are coupled with the increased desire to restore fertiliser production and localise the value chain, another option must be considered.

Having already started its journey to decarbonisation, the agriculture industry in the Netherlands is perfectly placed to provide guidance and learnings to Europe more broadly. At a time when food sovereignty is high on the agenda in Europe, a tandem approach to secure both food supply and decarbonise the sector will allow the continent’s agriculture industry to really shine.

TBB.2023: A spotlight on innovations in agriculture

So, perhaps it is time to wake up and smell the tulips. Decarbonising agriculture in the Netherlands and across Europe has a crucial role to play in reaching energy and climate objectives, and if done correctly, the industry can transition in a way that benefits people, the climate, and its bottom line.

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Gathering at the epicentre of the zero-carbon farming conversation, the latest cutting-edge technological advances in green agriculture and clean tech are, from farm to fork, creating a better future for all.

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This article originally appeared on TBB media partner Innovation News Network on 13 September. Read the full story here.