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Opinion: Balancing act – Navigating the nitrogen challenge for sustainable agriculture
Siân Yates

Siân Yates

29 May 2024

Opinion: Balancing act – Navigating the nitrogen challenge for sustainable agriculture


Amidst discussions at the December 2023 COP28, it became clear that sustaining and enhancing food production is paramount. However, the significant impact of chemical fertilisers on emissions poses a challenge. Samuel Fournier, CEO and co-founder of ChrysaLabs – the creators of a portable device for real-time soil analysis – delves into the intricate balance between these objectives. Fournier offers insights into innovative strategies for nitrogen emission reduction in agriculture, shedding light on promising solutions for a sustainable future.


According to the UN, food production must grow by 70% by 2050 to feed the global population. At the December 2023 COP28, pivotal discussions on agriculture and sustainability underscored the imperative not only to maintain current levels of food production but also to bolster them. This highlights a crucial shift in focus towards ensuring food security and sustainability for the future.

Given the significant impact of chemical fertilisers on emissions, this is counterintuitive. We need to adjust our agricultural and fertiliser use to improve growth. Fertilise smarter.


Ask any agriculturist about fertilisation, and nitrates will be mentioned. This isn’t unexpected, as it’s the one nutrient that rules them all – a vital but ecologically damaging fertiliser. Nitrogen fertilisers account for 1 in 44 tonnes of global GHGs while increasing agricultural production. This exceeds commercial aviation.


It is one of the most climate-polluting industrial chemicals, contributing to 21% of agricultural direct emissions. Synthetic nitrogen produces roughly 40% of GHGs in manufacturing and transport, but most emissions occur after soil application.


Industry-wide sustainability promises

Sustainability commitments matter to the market. The biggest firms are pursuing strong GHG reduction goals. 63% of Fortune Global 500 corporations want to reduce emissions by 2050. This is a 22% rise from 2022. The contribution of Scope 3 emissions to total footprints and net zero ambitions, especially in high-emitting industries, is quite different, creating a market opportunity.


Food and beverage companies are at a critical point in their search for sustainability, especially in addressing Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions. These indirect emissions from a company’s value chain frequently make up the majority of its carbon footprint, especially in agriculturally dependent industries like consumer packaged goods (CPGs). This dilemma is exacerbated by agriculture’s nitrogen reliance.

The importance of CPG firms in value chain sustainability cannot be emphasised enough. Companies may reduce Scope 3 emissions by working with suppliers, especially agricultural suppliers.


This participation entails sharing nitrogen management best practices, engaging in sustainable agriculture technology and, sometimes, balancing interests – balancing Scope 3 emission reduction with producers’ desire to enhance return on investment.


Many sustainable food and beverage products show the potential for major environmental impact reductions. CPGs are working hard to address Scope 3 across the sector. Major players are openly dedicated to reducing CO2, testing and deploying methods and techniques to attain key milestones.


From resource-efficient precision agriculture to waste-reducing biodegradable packaging, the sector is going green. CPGs tackling Scope 3 are testing green fertilisers, enhanced fertilisation systems, low-input cultivars and sensing technologies to measure in-field nitrogen.


Nitrogen management is a delicate on-farm choice that helps firms reach net-zero emissions by growing healthy, plentiful crops and reducing supply chain GHG emissions. Applying enough to fulfil crop needs without harming the ecosystem is crucial.


In this context, technologies that give thorough insights into soil health and nutrient levels enable more focused and effective fertiliser usage, lowering agricultural operations’ environmental imprint. Advanced soil sensing technology offers hope.


These new technologies help farmers optimise fertiliser use by correctly assessing soil nitrogen levels, eliminating excess nitrogen that may seep into streams and harm the environment. This precise nitrogen management method reduces Scope 3 emissions and improves soil health, enabling more sustainable agriculture.


This is still a business choice, though. Market shares cannot be sacrificed for that move. Acre yield must meet goals. Increased operating costs must be recouped or shared. Value chain changes include risks that must be addressed.



The C in CPG drives it

There are shifts in consumer demands. Firstly, pressure from consumers for socially responsible products and companies has been mounting and is at an all-time high.


A joint study between McKinsey and NielsenIQ published this year found that products with associated ESG claims average growth of 28% over the last five periods compared to 20% growth for products with no such claims, establishing material links between ESG claims and consumer spending.


Generations have demanded socially responsible products. The Pew Research Centre found an essentially linear trend in personal climate change action from Boomers to Gen Z (21%; Gen X, 23%; Millennials, 28%; Gen Z, 32%). KPMG found that 41% of Gen Z customers consider social responsibility while buying, compared to 33% of all consumers. Consumer demand for responsible corporations does not appear to be something that is going away anytime soon.


For years, consumer tastes have shaped corporate trends, and their influence looks to be growing. Consumers increasingly want to buy from businesses with clear sustainability strategies and policies and corporations that enforce them.


Reducing GHG is optional, but it may quite well boost brand equity and, more significantly, product distinctiveness.



Nitrogen emission reduction difficulties and possibilities

Agriculture’s nitrogen emission reduction journey is difficult yet rewarding. The scale of adoption is a major obstacle to making an influence. Technology and practice innovations must be adopted by early adopters and the whole global agriculture community.


However, the potential benefits – from decreased GHG emissions to enhanced soil health and crop yields – encourage players across the value chain to aggressively seek these advances.


Increasing sector coordination is needed to reduce Scope 3 emissions, especially through nitrogen control. Partnerships between technology providers, agricultural farmers, CPG firms and regulatory authorities provide unique insights and capabilities. Through collaboration, the food and beverage business can lead a shift to sustainable agriculture, creating an example for other industries.


Managing Scope 3 emissions, especially nitrogen management in agriculture, is difficult yet crucial. Sustainable innovations, cross-sector collaboration, and advanced sensing technology offer a solution. The food and beverage sector can lead environmental reduction efforts and ensure a sustainable global food supply chain by adopting these tools and ideas.


As we develop and collaborate, a sustainable, low-emission future becomes possible.

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