Inputs of the Future
Fertilisers of the Future
Strategic application of fertilisers is crucial to any farm business. In GrainGrowers’ 2023 Annual Policy Survey, Farm Inputs was identified as the biggest issue growers face, with 97% of challenges falling under this category. Fortunately, there are technologies and projects on the horizon, that with the required government policy and investment settings, may help alleviate the issue.
The first edition of the Inputs of the Future series takes a deep dive into each of the ‘’big three’’ fertiliser inputs - nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). It examines emerging technologies for each input, and looks at when these technologies could be available on farm. The full report covers the science behind fertilisers, usage statistics and some of the innovations on the horizon.
The 'Big Three' Fertilisers
Worldwide fertiliser use by nutrient 1961-2020
The Right Settings
Australia has become increasingly reliant on the importation of fertiliser in recent years, particularly nitrogen-based fertilisers. Fortunately, there are technologies and projects on the horizon, that with the required government policy and investment settings, may turn the tide on this reliance.
What is needed
Government needs to make targeted co-investments whilst forging favourable policy settings promoting the establishment and retention of new domestic fertiliser operations.
Role of government
There are significant upfront costs in establishing new production capability for individual firms looking to introduce cleaner, lower cost fertiliser production initiatives. The additional hurdle for firms when considering entry into the market is scaling up production to the point where there are economies of scale in order to compete with incumbents.
As it is often difficult for startup firms to raise sufficient capital to enter the market and sustain production, there is a clear role for government in solving this market-based problem through targeted co-funding.
Government and policy makers should focus on the deployment of government funding mechanisms, such as the recently passed National Reconstruction Fund, to assist a transition to a lower cost, greener domestic fertiliser manufacturing base. Specifically, in relation to phosphorus and potassium-based fertiliser production initiatives, there is an opportunity for government engagement to co-fund these fledgling industries, with numerous shovel-ready projects on hand.
In relation to nitrogen-based fertiliser production, a much larger technological gap exists, inhibiting local investment in Australia. As such, the efforts of government should focus on funding initiatives that bring current timelines for new technological advancement forward.
Why it is needed
Australia needs greater reliability and timelessness of supply which will be underpinned by increased domestic production and will also have lower green house gas emissions. A substantive benefit of domestic fertiliser manufacturing is the considerable shortening of supply chain lead times meaning Australia is less beholden to the tyranny of distance. Currently, it takes an average of 8 to 10 weeks to import additional bulk fertiliser due to changes in demand (depending on the international origin).
Other major benefits through onshoring Australia’s fertiliser supply include local job creation, increases to domestic Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the ability of government to have control over the manufacturing standards and emissions of these new operations.
Role of industry
The role of industry, including representative bodies and research organisations is to work cohesively and assist in guiding government initiatives and policy settings toward the highest optimal outcomes for local, low-cost manufacturing of fertiliser.
Australian fertiliser policy landscape
Australia’s economic and environmental policy settings are crucial if investment in new technology is to be embraced and proven to be commercially viable by private industry.
Domestic fertiliser producers are faced with very low barriers to entry from competing fertiliser imports, whilst simultaneously facing very high energy and labour costs relative to global standards. As fertiliser is a globally traded mass volume commodity where Australia is a price taker, large scale investment in domestic production is challenging in the absence of carefully implemented government support.
Government policy settings and investment initiatives should remain cognisant of fluctuation in commodity prices which, at extremes, can blur the long-term viability of certain technologies and initiatives.
The high cost of production may be sustainable at a business and consumer level for a short period of time due to supply shortages (such as during the COVID-19 pandemic) but under normal conditions the cost structure of new technologies must make the innovation economically viable (or provide a clear pathway to being economically viable).
New ventures must be able to weather multiple inevitable market cycles and the onslaught of global competitors for them to be a convincing value proposition for growers and investors alike.
Embedded emissions in grain production
It should be noted that a substantial proportion (circa 25% 1) of grain growing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions originate from beyond the farm gate. The majority of this comes with fertiliser and the associated transportation residing on the GHG bottom line as scope 3 emissions.
As shown below, Australian grain growers already apply very low rates of nitrogen per hectare by global standards and practice good stewardship by avoiding the over application of fertilisers. Hence aside from potentially using fertiliser inhibitor products, such as coated urea, further technological advancements, that are not necessarily available today, are required to improve the emissions efficiency of fertiliser use on farm.
Many of the technologies proposed in this report seek to lower farming Scope 3 emissions. In the instance of decentralised urea, bringing the production of urea back to a farm location level (or very close to), reduces the associated transportation emissions, (both road and ocean freight).
Where to from here?
Australian agriculture is dependent on the addition of fertiliser to crops and plant life to sustain the food security of our nation.
Having examined the ‘’big three’’ fertiliser inputs in depth, the challenges to government and industry through the transition to lower emission technologies are clear.
In order to foster domestic fertiliser production government policy settings need to strike a fine balance between being aspirational in terms of a transition to a lower emissions domestic capability, while remaining cognisant of large gaps (particularly with urea) in both availability and the production cost of new technologies.
As shown in the report, nitrogen-based fertiliser production poses the hardest challenge in terms of onshoring ahead of distant timelines set by industry, while phosphorous and potassium are areas where government incentives or investment could accelerate the domestic industry forward at speed.
Fertiliser is a globally traded commodity. Domestic producers face high-cost structures and are challenged by low barriers of entry from importers. Government policy must be reconciled against the backdrop of global competition, with Australia having some competitive advantage, particularly in the production of phosphorus and potassium-based fertiliser, thanks to an abundance of local raw materials.
Targeted investment or incentives for economically viable projects, of which some are shovel-ready, provide a starting point for government and the private industry to invest whilst aligning with the overarching objective of government to create a more robust and self-sufficient fertiliser manufacturing base with substantially shorter supply lead-times.
The full report covers the science behind fertilisers, usage statistics and emerging technology.
Farm inputs are critical to Australian grain production. Growers need surety of supply of farm inputs to maintain production including increased access to 'green' inputs. GrainGrowers aims to see growers have improved access to key farm inputs and more information to underpin decision-making.