Circularity in agriculture

Ammonium and nitrate are the major nutrient forms of nitrogen essential for plant growth and are added to the soil as fertilizers. The world’s nitrogen cycle, however, is out of balance, and this is causing major environmental, health and economic problems. Global nitrogen use is extremely inefficient, as only around 20% of nitrogen introduced in farming ends up in human food1. The science is clear: nitrogen management needs to be part of the solution to existing environmental problems.

Agriculture is a leading cause of climate change and is at the same time heavily affected by it2,3. Farming is the world’s largest consumer of fresh water and it is the main source of nitrate (NO3) and ammonia (NH3) pollution of waterways. This sector also releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere. CH4 and N2O are respectively 84 and 300 times more efficient greenhouse gases than CO2.

Agricultural practices must change to reduce its negative impact on the environment, while at the same time continuing to feed a growing population. New techniques and practices to close nutrient loops, and reduce negative discharges to the environment, also called the circular efficiency approach in agriculture, are evolving. 

Circularity in precision agriculture and waste recycling

Circular efficiency combines precision agriculture and waste recycling to limit discharges. Precision agriculture applies digital technologies including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing and data collection on soil conditions. The aim is to minimize the use of fertilizers, pesticides and water and at the same time increase food production4. Significant economic and environmental advantages can be obtained using this method. Nutrient recycling technologies, for example farm waste biodigesters which decompose waste and turns it into biogas, combined with direct air capture of nitrogen, will help to recycle nitrogen on the farm5. This approach will provide communities with a source of efficient and affordable nitrogen fertilizer, while improving crop yields. 

The future of farming will also include a shift towards other farming practices such as sustainable intensification, which entails a more holistic approach than traditional farming.  The idea here is to produce healthy food and give the farmer a competitive income while building ecosystems on and around farms6. The three important steps towards sustainable intensification are increased efficiency (doing more with less, i.e. no tillage), substitution (replacing ineffective and harmful products) and redesign.  Redesign could help make the whole farm more sustainable by implementing techniques such as conservation agriculture and integrated pest management. 

Conservation agriculture is based on maintenance of permanent soil cover (i.e. no tillage) and diversification of plant species in crop production. This technology contributes to improved and sustained food production by increasing water and nutrient use efficiency which serves to enhance biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below ground7. Integrated pest management is an ecosystem approach to crop production by creating conditions that are unfavourable for the pest and hence minimizing the need for pesticide-use8.

Opportunities and market impact

Nitrogen management is key to meeting air quality, water quality, climate and biodiversity goals, while at the same time offering huge economic benefits. The UN has estimated that approximately USD 200 billion worth of nitrogen is lost through emissions into the environment9. This underscores the value of nitrogen and implies a major economic opportunity through investment in a “nitrogen circular economy”.

One important incentive for such investments is the EU’s circular economy package that is now opening up the single market for trade of organic waste-based fertilizers that are important both for the recovery and recycling of bio-nutrients.  Previously only conventional, non-organic fertilisers extracted from mines or produced chemically could be freely traded across the EU. The recovery of nitrogen from bio-waste is expected to reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic or inorganic nitrogen fertilizers and hence disrupt some of the business for chemical fertilizer companies. At the same time, new jobs and market opportunities will evolve around the recycling of bio-nutrients on the farm. 

The growing population’s huge demand for food, in combination with changing weather conditions and governmental initiatives towards adopting modern environmentally friendly agricultural processes are expected to drive the precision agriculture market globally. The largest impact will be seen in countries with developed economies and vast farmlands like the EU and the US. The global precision agriculture market is expected to double, from nearly USD 5 billion in 2018 to more than USD 10 billion by 202410.

Because arable land is limited, most of the additional food production required to feed the growing population towards 2050 will have to come from using sustainable intensification practices in agriculture. In parallel there will be a consumer-led drive towards environmentally safe agriculture.

In addition to the obvious environmental benefits of reducing environmental nitrogen pollution, circular efficiency and sustainable intensification have positive effects on biodiversity and contribute to increased carbon sequestration in soils.

Risks and uncertainties

There are several risks and uncertainties related to implementation of a circular efficiency of nitrogen in agriculture. One of the most important barriers is the lack of a holistic approach for nitrogen science and policy. As an example, nitrogen management is key for achieving many SDGs, but at the same time virtually invisible in the description of the Goals. At the same time, there are too few policy regulations and incentives to enhance nutrient flows in integrated farming systems, and there is a need for practical tools to guide farmers on reducing nitrogen impact8. Read more: Precision agriculture


Main author: Marte Rusten

Contributors: Anne Louise Koefoed; Bente Pretlove

Editor: Ellen Skarsgård

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