Ministerial Breakfast on Innovation and Partnerships for Sustainable Consumption and Production, 27 May 2016

Short speech by Dutch Minister for the Environment Sharon Dijkstra on cooperation and innovation in the phosphate value chain

Ladies and gentlemen, the problems associated with lack of nutrients and phosphate also present opportunities. For my country, the Netherlands, for Europe, and also for Asia, Africa and the Americas.

I’d like to illustrate this by telling you about our experience of phosphate management, and how it has fostered innovation in both water management and farming. And what this might mean for opportunities to improve the environment, while raising productivity and efficiency in agriculture. Without harming the existing fertiliser industry, either in the Netherlands or internationally.

The global population is forecast to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050. All those people will not only need a lot of water and energy, but also a lot of food. And food can only be produced with nutrients like nitrates, potassium and phosphates. So the demand for phosphate fertilisers is set to increase dramatically. To keep fertilisers affordable, they must be used effectively. In other words, we are really going to need the world’s phosphate mines over the next few decades.

This brings me to what we have learnt in the Netherlands. We engage in highly intensive, high-quality farming on a very small piece of this planet. The Netherlands, with only 17 million inhabitants, is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world, after the US. We produce a lot of meat, so we also produce a lot of animal dung, which contains large quantities of phosphate. We cannot spread this all on our fields, so we have had to innovate. We convert animal dung to fertiliser, and export it to regions where it is in demand. In a way, we are recycling our phosphate.

At the same time, a great deal of phosphate is wasted when excessive quantities of fertilisers are applied. Inadequate water treatment means a lot of phosphate ends up in surface waters. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could reduce the environmental impact of this by creating a market for recycled fertilisers, and phosphate in particular? This would kill three birds with one stone: we would benefit the environment, cut costs in agriculture, and reduce dependence on expensive, imported fertiliser.

In the Netherlands, we’ve looked for ways to recycle phosphate not only in agriculture, but also in the water sector, where phosphate is recovered from waste water. Partnerships between companies in these sectors and in the supply chain are increasingly helping us meet the demand for good fertiliser.

Let me give you an example. Dutch water treatment companies are now investing in phosphate recovery, including in urban areas. Our human ‘contribution’ is also worth money: by installing struvite recovery technology, water treatment plants can produce biogas and fertiliser and save on maintenance costs. The fertiliser industry is joining in, using more and more recycled fertiliser in its production process.

Other innovations are being rolled out in agriculture that use online technology. Precision agriculture is already technically possible. The challenge is to make the technologies available simply and affordably so that farmers in less developed regions can use them. These technologies are needed to raise productivity in farming and reduce the waste of valuable raw materials.
Does this threaten the livelihoods of phosphate miners in Morocco? The answer is: no!

The European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform (ESPP) and the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management are consulting with OCP – one of the biggest phosphate mining companies – on the basis of a ‘mutual gains approach’. They are our partner in a joint effort to get farmers the greatest possible supply of good, affordable fertiliser, with the lowest possible water consumption. This not only means that more farmers can buy fertiliser, but also that future generations will still have access to the earth’s phosphate reserves.

Precision farming, innovative water treatment and nutrient recycling. It’s all possible, not only in the Netherlands and Europe, but also in Asia, the Americas and Africa. Just imagine: towns producing fertiliser for nearby farmers, reducing the distances fertilisers have to be transported, and making them affordable for farmers. Imagine what this could mean for the environment, with no more phosphate run-off into rivers, lakes and bays, thanks to good water treatment and precision farming. Imagine what this could mean in terms of jobs, in both urban and rural areas.
All this is possible if we foster innovation and share knowledge, in our own countries, together with a network of companies, scientists and NGOs. Government will facilitate and encourage, while companies will have to innovate and invest. The government will connect and foster market confidence. Confidence that will provide a basis for the transition to a circular economy, where waste becomes a resource.

The Netherlands has centuries of experience of water management and farming. We are tenacious people who like to form partnerships to explore new innovations. And we would love to share our knowledge and experience with you.

The world faces challenges that demand action: shortages of food, water and energy, population growth, progressive urbanisation and climate change. And the action has to be fast!

That’s why I call on you to join the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management, an initiative of UNEP. Let’s join forces to turn the great challenges of the 21st century into opportunities.