Researchers determine the most suitable agri-environmental indicators to assess potential technologies for nutrient recovery in agriculture

Researchers from Nutri2Cycle project present a study that faces the challenge of agriculture to minimize the impact on the environment and develop a screening analysis useful to enhance nutrient efficiency in agriculture

The adverse effects of agriculture and livestock production on the environment are well known and require mitigation in order to achieve sustainability in the food production chain. However, it is not a simple task to select the most relevant indicators to address the most important issues in agricultural practices due to the magnitude and potential scenarios that we can find. Knowing that, the research team composed by members of the Nutri2Cycle EU project (from the IRTA’s research program Sustainability in Biosystems, URV, University of Copenhagen and Ghent University,) has carried out a study to address the adverse effects related to biogeochemical flows of phosphorus and nitrogen cycles which natural balances have been greatly disturbed by current practices in agriculture.

With a set of 15 indicators, they were able to assess the potential benefits and harmful effects of different technologies used as mitigation measures, to reduce impacts in agriculture. The set included indicators also addressed in the European Green Deal, the Agri-environmental indicators developed by the European Commission and others included the Common Agricultural Policy context indicators, allowing a direct comparison of policy alternatives.

In the study, the set was named as dashboard indicators (DBI) and it was divided in three dimensions: use of primary resources (i.e. use mineral fertilizers, oil in machinery and water consumption in the facilities or in irrigation), emissions to environment (i.e. ammonia volatilization, methane and water pollutants such as nitrate and phosphorus) and resilience to climate, aiming to reduce or mitigate climate change by the production of renewable energy, electricity consumption and calculating carbon footprint. The use of the dashboard is useful for professional end users of solutions in communicating the results in a comprehensive and easy format, due to the use of different colours, shapes and statement (positive, negative, neutral and unknown impact). To test the DBI, five case studies were investigated using a questionnaire that was sent to key experts in each technology.

Image: Graphical abstract of their study. From the problem to the solution.

As expected, the results indicated that there were potential benefits in terms of improved nutrient recovery and decreased nitrate leaching, which are the focus of most of the technologies in the project Nutri2Cycle. However, the DBI also showed some potential harmful effects of the technologies come from the increased use of electricity and oil consumption and greater ammonia volatilisation due to the increased use of organic fertilisers. This shows us how important is not include only indicators to measure the focus of the technology, since other beneficial and harmful trade-offs can be created with the technology. Another relevant point is related to the particulate matter because it was the indicator that was pointed as the most “unknown” indicator, and a coherent explanation for it is the difficulty of predicting this indicator, since particulate matter is a result of ammonium sulphate, ammonium nitrate, organic carbon, and other smaller portions from elemental carbon and soil or crustal elements.

Their work also proposed several methodologies, with different levels of complexity, for estimating quantitative values for the DBI, and this is relevant in order to evaluate the efficiency of the technology compared to a baseline (i.e. the current situation applied in agriculture).

The dashboard indicators selected covered the main aspects of the technologies, being suitable for the rapid assessment of technologies for nutrient recovery in agriculture. However, it is important to highlight that the use of the DBI does not exclude the need of performing full environmental assessments of the technologies, for instance, using Life Cycle Assessment. Other than that, the DBI can be used as a pre-screening method for technologies designed to improve the environmental sustainability of arable and livestock systems.

This study, recently published in the journal Ecological Indicators, is part of the Nutri2Cycle project that receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. Furthermore, this work has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, from URV and from IRTA. The research was done as a. The doctoral thesis of Edilene Pereira Andrade is in line with this study. She is one of the 45 doctoral researchers contracted through the URV’s Martí i Franquès COFUND Programme.

Reference: Edilene Pereira Andrade, August Bonmatí, Laureano Jiménez Esteller, Sander Brunn, Lars Stoumann Jensen, Erik Meers, Assumpció Antón. Selection and application of agri-environmental indicators to assess potential technologies for nutrient recovery in agriculture, Ecological Indicators, Volume 134, 2022, 108471. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2021.108471

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