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CIRCULAR AGRONOMICS - Efficient Carbon, Nitrogen and Phosphorus cycling in the European Agri-food System and related up- and down-stream processes to mitigate emissions

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Circular Agronomics (CIRCULAR AGRONOMICS - Efficient Carbon, Nitrogen and Phosphorus cycling in the European Agri-food System and related up- and down-stream processes to mitigate emissions)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

Nutrient use through the whole EU agri-food chain is still inefficient. These low efficiencies result in large loss of nutrients into the environment with negative impacts on soils, water and air, and constitute unacceptable health and environmental costs. Circular Agronomics (CA) provides a comprehensive synthesis of practical solutions to improve the current C, N and P cycling in European agro-ecosystems and related up- and down-stream processes within the value-chain of food production. The broader objective of CA is to facilitate a development towards smart, sustainable, resilient and inclusive economies that are part of circular and zero-waste societies. The wider objective of Circular Agronomics is flanked by 4 main specific objectives: Increase the understanding of C, N, P flows and the related potential to reduce environmental impacts at farm and regional level under different bio-geographical conditions; Closing nutrient loops and to increase the reuse of waste(water) from food-industry to improve soil fertility and nutrient use efficiency (NUE); Highlight the performance of different prototypes of agro-ecological systems and increase sustainability of food production in the EU; To contribute to the improvement of the European Agricultural Policies by providing evidence-based, farmer led and consumer relevant recommendations for the agri-food chain.
Within WP1, we are studying aspects related to soil-plant interactions by conducting a comprehensive analysis of C, N and P distribution, stability and bioavailability in relation to application with novel soil amendments produced in the other WP’s. We are also testing and demonstrating various measures to improve C, N and P cycling in crop and grassland systems (precision farming, cover crops, conservation tillage, stimulating biodiversity). The measures studied so far have shown better results than the practices traditionally performed. Moreover, the optimization of fertilizer application strategies using a variety of technical innovations (novel nitrification inhibitors and utilizing genetic variation in crops) are being carried out with satisfactory preliminary results to be confirmed in further stages of the project. Within WP2, we are immersed in all activities associated with livestock farming, manure management and treatment and the related C, N and P emissions, stocks and flows on macro-scale, by reducing manure production and nutrient content (precision feeding and feeding strategies) and optimising manure management while minimizing NH3 and GHG emissions from animal housing, manure treatment and land application, as well as by improving fertilizer value of manure processing it into organic fertilizers (solar drying, microfiltration). We are also implementing technologies to extract nutrients from the liquid fraction of manures to make inorganic fertilizers (stripping). The first results have shown that it is possible to reduce manure N content, to improve manure management increasing its fertilizer value, and to reduce GHG and NH3 emissions from livestock farming. In WP3, we are focused on the elaboration and demonstration of solutions aiming at the recovery of C, N and P from food-waste and food processing waste(water) for its subsequent recycling in crop and/or livestock farming by the development of 3 innovative solutions aiming at recovery of C-species and N/P-based fertilizers for recycling in crop farming. Promising results have been obtained from the preliminary trials in which the optimal working conditions have been set to be implemented afterwards. The products obtained in WP2 and WP3 are being used as amendments in WP1 thus closing cycles within the project. WP4 and WP5 are evaluating the proposed technologies from an environmental, policy, economic and social point of view. Up to now, the conditions and the questionnaires needed for these evaluations have been developed.
Circular Agronomics is working on increasing soil internal nutrient cycling and soil carbon stocks by providing agricultural management strategies for improved C sequestration as well as by performing organic N-fertilizer application strategies for minimizing yield-scaled emissions. CA is also improving treated residues application strategies and applying recovered mineral fertilizers from digestates while reducing direct NH3, GHG and N/P emission from livestock farming. CA is recovering C/N/P from manure, digestate and food industry (waste)waters and is holistically assessing the agri-food value chain to improve its economic and environmental sustainability.
The potential impacts of CA comprise: Increased NUE along the EU Agri-food chain and improved overall sustainability; Increased innovation capacity of the farming systems; Reduced GHG and NH3 emissions; Protected and enhanced soil C stocks; Improved ground- and surface-water quality; Integrated scientific support for relevant EU policies; Strengthened transdisciplinary research for long-lasting implementation of results; CA will contribute to major EU policies; CA will generate social impact in direct and indirect manner by developing non-technical measures such as policy actions towards more sufficiency in agriculture, food consumption and waste management and towards a more sustainable and low-emission by closing C, N and P loop as much as possible; CA will develop affordable technical solutions which fit within the current structures of European agriculture, minimising the economic pressure on producers within the European agricultural sector so that food production costs remain stable.
The expected results are: an increase of the agronomic efficiency in terms of nutrient usage by 20 % compared to nowadays in conventional farming, summing up to a total potential in avoided emission of approx. 2 Mt/yr of N and 0.2 Mt/yr of P. The Life Cycle Assessment will assess sustainability with regard to environmental and emissions impacts across media (soil, water air) as well as for process optimization strategies and different aspects will be linked with governance in the policy impact assessment. As mid-term vision until 2030, an annual reduction of approx. 10-15 % of direct GHG emissions in agriculture in EU-28 is achievable. Out of this reduction 75 % will come from reduce N2O loss to the atmosphere and 25 % by reduced CH4 losses via measures in livestock farming. Approx. 7 Mt CO2-Eq/yr will be reduced via CA recovery approaches for N and P fertilizers. Related NH3 emissions and SO2 emissions to air causing terrestrial acidification can be reduced in similar magnitudes. NH3 emissions reductions can be achieved by choice of N-fertilizers and pH-Management of soils. For areas with low C stocks in soil a realistic target is to increase it by 10 % until 2030. A Reduction of NO3 emissions to receiving waters by 50 % in regions with high N surplus and by 10-15 % in European average. CA will produce a clear policy brief which will highlight to policy makers the barriers and bottlenecks which impede the greater take up system change along the food chain towards a more circular economy (CE). Exploitation will be maximized through CA’s dissemination plan which will encourage knowledge exchange with targeted stakeholders and through CA’s policy recommendations, ensuring that policy makers create the correct framework so that farmers, food-industry and retailers can establish and implement a practical and affordable circular economy within their sector.
Group photo during the first General Assembly in Spain. September 2018.
Circular Agronomics' flowchart