Our present system entails many significant risks, including the strong dependence on imported energy and fertilisers. In addition, plant production and animal husbandry are located in different regions of Finland, which causes excessive amounts of side stream in certain places and a shortage in others. Climate change brings its own challenges to the management of production risks.
One solution to these tough problems is to maximise our nutrient self-sufficiency. The idea is to retain the nutrients present in food production that are necessary for the plants to grow in the cycle instead of letting them escape. This idea is realised in traditional composting. During this decade significant investments have been made in research and measures in order that all nutrients can be recovered for use by the plants and would not end up in waters or the air.
Traditional artificial fertilisers are manufactured from the limited raw material sources or ones that require a lot of energy. At the same time side streams are created in different stages of food production that contain nutrients suitable for use as fertiliser and as substitutes for artificial fertilisers. This is why materials such as excess manure, grass and biowaste should be more efficiently processed into safe and usable recycled fertiliser products. This would also make it easier to transport them to where nutrients are needed.
The best possible use should be made of biomasses and side streams that will have to be disposed of in one way or the other. Types of use with the highest added value should be found for the side fractions.
Recently there has been a lot discussion and criticism concerning the use of sludge created in municipal waste purification as raw material for recycled fertiliser products. Waste water sludge represents only a small proportion of all raw materials of recycled nutrients, and it is never used for fertilisers untreated. However, municipal waste water sludge is created all the time and it also contains nutrients that are important for food production.
In future advanced processing methods must be found for waste water sludge by which the nutrients can be separated and utilised even more safely than now. Research and development work is also done under the Government’s key projects concerning a circular economy. Municipal waste water sludge is an outcome of products we all use in our daily lives, which is why we should look into the ways to reduce the chemical load they cause.
The EU has also become aware of the limited supply of mineral phosphorus contained in artificial fertilisers and problems caused by excess manure. The amendments to the EU fertiliser legislation to be completed this year aim to bring recycled nutrients on par with artificial fertilisers. The legislative reform is still under way but, when implemented, it will enable recycled fertiliser products manufactured within the EU to be sold from the rest of Europe to Finland and vice versa.
Often the recyclable nutrient-rich materials also contain organic matter that improves the productive capacity of lands and sequesters carbon into the soil. This is important in terms of both climate change mitigation and adaptation, and it is a property which artificial fertilisers do not have. The EU legislation will also enable products that mix recycled nutrients and artificial fertilisers. Through this the benefits of recycled products can be combined in an optimal way.
Finland should promote a transition to domestic energy and recycled nutrients, not only for food production but also for the business potential involved. There is a global demand for recycled nutrients and the related logistics.
The move towards recycled nutrients is inevitable. If Finland wishes to keep up with the progress, we cannot wait. We must accept the challenge and do our best for domestic, independent and safe food production. This is for the benefit of us all.
The author is the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.