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It's obvious that agriculture is a vital industry and that the world's population simply couldn't survive without it. But did you know that farming has quite a high energy intensity and a large carbon footprint?

Take mineral fertiliser production, for instance. Around 1.5% of global energy is used in the manufacture of mineral fertiliser — a product that enriches the soil with nutrients and therefore effectively helps deliver about half of the world's food. In this view, 1.5% seems like a relatively small amount for such a big return. So, what's the problem?

When it comes to mineral fertiliser, we are working hard to solve the emissions challenge, says Mark Tucker, Head of Agronomy at Yara UK and Ireland, a company that specialises in agricultural products and solutions. View it another way, and it's worrying to think that approximately 1.5% of global energy is spent manufacturing just one (admittedly critical) product.

Unfortunately, the production of mineral fertiliser is complex; it requires the burning of fossil fuels — but that must change, says Mark. “Mineral fertiliser manufacture has to be made more sustainable,” he insists. “Yara is investing in a green research programme to test renewable energy sources, like solar, for the same process.”


Catalyst technology reducing greenhouse gases by 90%


Then there's the issue of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas that is emitted into the atmosphere during mineral fertiliser production. Yara has developd a catalyst technology which has been embedded in all of the company’s European nitric acid plants, reducing N2O emission by 90%.

“Our ambition is to increase that figure to 98%,” says Mark, who also reveals that 95% of mineral fertilisers going to Ireland come from the firm's European plants. “That's an important figure, because they might otherwise be coming from across the world from coal-fired manufacturing plants, with a larger carbon footprint.”


Greener transportation


When the mineral fertiliser is made, shipping and trucking logistics are necessary to transport it from the factory to the field, increasing carbon emissions en route. Going forward, supply chains for agricultural products have to be made greener, argues Mark. “In Norway, Yara is now building “Yara Birkeland”, the world’s first zero- emission, autonomous container vessel to transport mineral fertiliser from the the factory to the market. This is only one ship, but our ambition is to one day deliver mineral fertiliser with zero emissions to farmers”, he says.


Maximising farming efficiency for sustainable results


Philip Cosgrave, Grassland Agronomist for Yara UK and Ireland, points out that farmers are constantly faced with a range of sustainability challenges. Improving water systems for the wider ecosystem and human health, cleansing the air, and reducing ammonia, carbon and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions are the primary concerns. Using mineral fertilisers on farms results in the release of N2O emissions.

Cosgrave believes they should employ ultra-efficient farming practices to get the most from their soil with the least harm to the environment. “The first thing that farmers should do is understand their soil's nutrient supply,” says Cosgrave. “They need to make a nutrient plan to determine which mineral fertiliser their crop needs in order to maximise both the yield and the quality of the produce while preventing losses. They should then apply the mineral fertiliser as accurately as possible with the correct timing to optimise nutrient use efficiency.”


How mobile apps and satellites minimise environmental damage


The latest tech innovations can help in this regard. For example, Yara is offering smartphone apps that aid nutrient planning, orinfield tools and equipment that can analyse a crop’s nutrient status. Use of satellite imagery, meanwhile, allows farmers to monitor their crops to assess how well they are growing. They can then target them more precisely with mineral fertilisers and plant protection products, so minimising the impact on the environment.

Mark is optimistic that, with breakthroughs such as these, it will be possible to responsibly feed the world and protect the planet. “By working closely with the farmer, using digital farm management tools and offering mineral fertiliser products that come from greener production methods, we are definitely moving in the right direction,” he says.