0 Going Dutch on N and P

The bleak outlook is that the world is running out of viable reserves of phosphate in the very near future. European countries are leading change in their nitrogen and phosphate inputs. How will this affect the UK amenity market and your surfaces?

Due to its intensive agriculture, the Netherlands has the highest nitrogen emissions in Europe. As a result, Dutch forests and rivers are among the most polluted in the world. EU environmental standards dictate that the Dutch government must reduce the presence of this chemical element in the soil which has caused uproar and protests across the country. This is all something which hasn't quite got to the UK, but you would assume that the issues will soon be upon us.

A huge proportion of land in the UK is used agriculturally (63%), with a much smaller footprint being classified for outdoor recreation (2%). Amenity surfaces may not occupy as much space as agriculture, but offer enjoyment for billions of people in the UK.

Half a century of development and understanding of plant hormone production has resulted in the manufacture of specialised premium products facilitating healthy root growth, disease resistance and, most importantly, protection against stress. This technology is used world-wide in both amenity and agriculture where continuing success is being maintained, often in extreme environments. Fruit, vegetable and even wine growers will bear testament to the understanding and product development.

Imports to the UK

Europe's drive to reduce fertiliser use indirectly affects the UK because Europe is a key partner of the UK for fertiliser imports, with 26%, 17% and 15% of N, P and K imported from European countries in 2021 (FAO, n.d.). Clearly, if Europe reduces its production capacity, one knock on effect is a reduction in the amount available for export.

The key to managing plant health is a better understanding of your plant needs and requirements.

Nitrogen (N)

Nitrogen is the nutrient which makes plants grow, there are three forms, nitrate, ammonium and amine, all of which can be taken up by the plant, each form being utilised in a different way. A balance of all three forms are needed to keep turf and grass healthy,

Phosphorus (P)

Phosphorus is critical for the promotion of root development and the establishment of turf, so we often recommend higher levels for young turf. It is also required for the breakdown of carbohydrates and the transfer of energy.

The stresses of managing the plant often ends with unrealistic demands made upon groundspersons and greenkeepers. Not to mention the insufficient allocation of resources coupled with over ambitious expectations.

Sports facilities and the enjoyment that people obtain from spending time in a green environment, makes it clear that working to improve plant health and growth in amenity areas is a worthwhile endeavour. Fertilisers can help to improve both the aesthetic and the functional quality of these environments, particularly where they are subject to significant amounts of wear.

Notwithstanding the clear value to the use of fertilisers in both agricultural settings and in amenity areas, there are increasing financial and environmental costs associated with their use. In the United Kingdom, the ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) fertilisers applied to crops is roughly 7:1:2 respectively, with 133 kg N/ha, 20 kg P/ha and 33 kg K/ha applied in 2021.

These three nutrients are considered to be the major nutrients required for plant growth, but there are limits to the amount of each that plants are able to take up. It has been calculated that the UK over supplies nitrogen to crops at a rate of 62 kg/ha and phosphorus at a rate of 5 kg/ha. This results in unnecessary pollution into our natural environment, as well as wasting money and resources on inputs that are not used by the crop.

Due to the relative scales of the industries, there is not as much scrutiny of amenity derived pollutants, even though it is just as possible to overapply fertilisers in an amenity setting as in an agricultural setting. However, the amenity industry has a vested interest in maintaining the quality of the natural environment and takes steps to work according to best practice principles.

There is an increasing understanding of the requirement to use fertilisers within the limits of the ability of plants to uptake nutrients, to avoid unnecessary expenditure and to reduce environmental impacts of fertilisers. Within Europe, STERF (Scandinavian Turfgrass and Environment Research Foundation) recommends using a precision, demand driven fertilisation approach.

Similarly, the R&A recommends tailoring nutrient inputs to the requirements of the grass species in the sward (R & A, 2023). Using this type of best practice approach, the industry is acting in the best interests of the environment. It is also beneficial financially and improves the external perception of the industry as a whole.

Increased awareness

Over recent years, awareness about the impacts on the natural environment and ecosystem services, and the limitations of traditional sources of fertilising materials, has increased.

This has led to a drive to decrease fertiliser applications whilst maintaining yields in agriculture and maintaining quality standards in amenity horticulture. Like many other developed nations, the UK has seen a long-term trend of decreasing fertiliser since the 1980s, with notable plunges in use following major economic turmoil such as the 2008 recession and, more recently, the energy crisis and invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Reductions in gas availability due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine resulted in a 149% increase in the price of nitrogen fertilisers in the EU in September 2022 compared with September 2021 (European Union, 2022). There were two main consequences of this for agriculture and other industries that rely on fertilisers:

  1. Farmers purchased and used less fertiliser
  2. EU fertiliser companies reduced their production

Where does this leave the UK amenity industry?

At only 2%, amenity surfaces occupy a fraction of the overall land usage compared with our much bigger agricultural sibling, covering 63%, but the opportunity to have a recognisable impact is not insignificant.

Amenity has an unparalleled interaction with the public and there is an unmistakeable prospect of affecting public perception and awareness towards fertiliser usage, in particular nitrogen and phosphorus. The issues with these two nutrients and erroneous application are well documented within the agricultural environment, however it is not a like for like environment when we look at the amenity sector. There are many variables such as quantities applied, method of application and timing/ frequency of application. However, because of the overall general awareness around these issues, amenity, rightly comes under the spotlight too.

Because of the numbers and scale, this is likely to be a larger issue for the agricultural sector to navigate, however, because amenity has historically followed the trends that affect agriculture, it will also inevitably be affected by these issues.

The big question is when, and with what implications?

You could argue that the time to act is now, ahead of anything being imposed or enforced. This approach is where the sector can be seen to be making a positive change towards a sustainable future. Innovation is key, and there are increasingly more products available that can allow for a reduction in application of these key nutrients (N+P), whilst still maintaining healthy plant growth. This can only help reduce overall demand and consumption, thus aiding the movement and reliance away from these nutrients in the future.

Those that start to make changes to practices now will be far better positioned further along the journey of reduced inputs, and therefore the impact of any such imposed changes will be potentially negligible. Those who decide not to act, until told they have no choice, may find a swift change of conditions and possibilities which makes turf management (as they know it) a whole different ball game.

Editorial Enquiries Editorial Enquiries

Contact Kerry Haywood

07973 394037

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