Green fertilizer developed by Yara to “effortlessly” decarbonize the food chain

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The food industry is under pressure to reduce its carbon footprint. Globally, a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from food and agriculture, the majority of which occurs before the product reaches supermarket shelves.

At the farm level, mineral nitrogen fertilizers are widely used in conventional agriculture to increase productivity. However, being produced from fossil fuels, they are heavy emitters of GHGs: recent research suggests that nitrogen fertilizers account for around 2.4% of global emissions.

At the same time, about one third of the total energy input to agricultural production is spent on fertilizer production.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the amount of mineral nitrogen fertilizer used worldwide has increased by 800% since the 1960s. The UN expects this volume to increase by 50% by 2050.

One “effortless” way to decarbonize the food chain, according to Plant Food Major Yara, is to replace conventional nitrogen fertilizers with a fossil-free alternative.

The company, considered Europe’s largest crop nutrition player, is developing the first commercially available solution that “greens” ammonia production while leveraging renewable electricity to help the industry decarbonize the food chain.

What is a “green” fertilizer?

Green manures are nitrate-based mineral fertilizers with exactly the same chemical and physical composition as fertilizers produced with fossil fuels – be it natural gas, coal or oil.

Ammonia is the cornerstone of all mineral fertilizers. Conventional mineral fertilizers use ammonia produced from hydrogen from fossil fuels.

To produce green manures, Yara makes ammonia from water using renewable energy-based electrolysis, explained Birgitte Holter, Vice President, Green Manure and Low Carbon Solutions. “For our green manure, we will stop using natural gas as a raw material. There is also hydrogen in water, so we split the water molecule and took the hydrogen that way.

After extracting hydrogen to create green ammonia, all other processes remain the same.

The electrolysis process and the production of fertilizers will be powered by green energy. In Norway, this could mean electricity from Norwegian hydropower. But as Holter explained, the energy source depends on the region. “In Australia, for example, we use solar energy.”

The result is green manure with an 80-90% reduced carbon footprint, Yara estimates.

“Switching from conventional fertilizer to green manure can help the food chain significantly reduce carbon emissions,” Holter told FoodNavigator. “In wheat, green manures could reduce the carbon footprint by 20%, and if you translate that into a loaf of bread, it could reduce emissions by about 10-15%.”

Reduce dependence on Russian gas

Yara’s innovation appears to have come at an opportune time, as prices for conventional mineral fertilizers soar amid the Ukraine-Russia dispute.

Prior to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, crop nutrition prices were already on the rise. But now the limited supply of Russian gas is exacerbating the situation.

For Yara, the impact of the conflict on food security confirms that the business is on the right track. A few years ago, when Yara decided to commercialize green manures on a large scale, its ambitions were to reduce the climate footprint of producing fertilizers, and therefore, of food, we were told. .

“But everything that has happened since then – first with the fall in gas prices, then with the war in Ukraine and the focus on food security – proves that this is the right path to take. follow,” he added. said the vice president.

Interestingly, green manure technology is not new.

Yara was established in 1905 as Norsk Hydro. The company was the world’s largest producer of mineral nitrogen fertilizers. “We started 117 years ago… with technology that looks like this,” explained Holter.

As natural gas became more competitive as a feedstock for fertilizers in the 20e​ century, Yara also switched most of its production to natural gas, but continued to produce hydrogen by electrolysis at its plant in northern Norway until the 1990s.

“Now we’re going back to basics, where we basically use water as a raw material…and use renewable electricity in the process.”

Will “green” food cost more?

Unsurprisingly, given economies of scale, green manures could be more expensive than conventionally produced alternatives.

This creates a challenge for Yara, who wants to ensure that “good business models” can be developed to share the increased costs. Holter wants to avoid “part of the chain” carrying an “additional load”. “And of course, we think a lot about farmers…that’s where we invite food companies to [come together and brainstorm with us].”

For the end consumer, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group, estimates that food prices would increase only slightly if produced without any upstream emissions. The average cost increase on a $20 basket should be around 4%.

Yara calculates that the cost of a loaf of bread could increase by about 1%.

At the same time, survey-based studies in Western countries indicate that more than 50% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

The future of fertilizers

Yara manufactures its green manure in Norway, in one of the largest fertilizer factories in the world. The construction of a first small factory dedicated to the production of green manures is in progress.

When it comes to scale, Yara wants to go as “fast as possible”. “It is obvious that we are not only dependent on access to renewable energy, but also on the renewable energy infrastructure available.”

Yara’s fossil-free fertilizer will hit the market mid-2023. The company has already signed a commercial agreement with the Swedish agricultural cooperative Lantmännen.

The crop nutrition company is convinced of the importance of mineral fertilizers in the future. The most extreme calculations indicate that if fertilizer is not added to the soil, yields can be reduced by 50% the next harvest, Holter explained.

“The easiest way to reduce carbon and GHG emissions is of course to stop production, but that would reduce crop yield. That’s why we chose another [solution].

“We are part of the food chain. Our mission is to feed the world while protecting the planet. So we had to find a solution…[which means] put on the market fertilizers that guarantee food security without harming the planet.

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