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The sustainability of mineral fertilisers: a major challenge for the future

Although in recent years scientists and political decision-makers have mainly focused on the environmental costs of the over-intensive use of mineral fertilisers, it is also necessary to ensure the future availability of these mineral fertilisers to European farmers. 

Granulés d' ENGRAIS  de chlorure de potassium.. © INRA, VASSEUR-DELAITRE Gilles
Updated on 05/30/2014
Published on 05/30/2014

Although the intensive use of mineral fertilisers poses problems of sustainability - high environmental costs and the generation of greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide) - mineral fertilisation is also confronted by the issue of access to natural resources.  The fertiliser industry is indeed dependent on the exploitation of non-renewable mineral resources, and in the short and medium terms their availability is also subject to major pressures because of the important economic and geopolitical interests involved.  Although the environmental issues have been studied by scientists and taken into account by governments,the physical sustainability of resources has only been considered more recently. It is in this context that a research team has studied the challenges faced by this sector in the European Union (EU).


The availability of mineral fertilisers: a crucial challenge for agriculture


The EU is deficient in natural resources, except for those of potash.  Fertiliser companies need to import most of the raw materials they require, but their prices have recently risen and their long-term availability is in doubt.  A review of the literature showed that the risk of exhausting these resources is not proven, at least in the medium term (i.e. between now and the end of this century).  This issue must nevertheless be considered with attention by the authorities because the availability of mineral fertilisers is crucial to guaranteeing food security, but data on the reserves remain unreliable and the resources are concentrated in a small number of countries.  The relative abundance of these resources does not mean that supplies will necessarily be available in all parts of the world that may be concerned.


An uncertain future subject to major geopolitical pressures


Since 2008, the prices of mineral fertilisers and of the raw materials necessary for their production have increased markedly due to a combination of factors: the substantial rise in energy costs; the sustained dynamic of world demand; the lack of investment in extraction industries and the marked concentration of supplies.  Although recent investments are likely to improve the balance between supply and demand in the near future, the prospects remain somewhat uncertain in the longer term.  The availability of mineral fertilisers to European farmers must therefore be monitored carefully, insofar as their supply is dependent on countries with sometimes complex geopolitical contexts (Russia, Middle East, North Africa).

This work was carried out in the context of discussions initiated by Terrena with respect to EIA (Ecologically Intensive Agriculture).  It is the subject of a collaboration with ESA Angers.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment.
Associated Centre(s):
Pays de la Loire

For further information

The full report is available online (in french):

Other publication (in french):

  • Les engrais minéraux dans les exploitations agricoles françaises et européennes. Bérengère LECUYER, Vincent CHATELLIER • INRA, SAE2, UR 1134 (LERECO), Nantes; Karine DANIEL • INRA, SAE2, UR 1134 (LERECO), Nantes, PRES L’UNAM - ESA (École Supérieure d’agriculture), LARESS, Angers   Économie Rurale 333/January-February 2013