Demand for natural fertilisers increasing as environmental reforms prompt change
Farmers and horticulturalists are using more natural nitrogen fertilisers in the face of ongoing pressure to reduce or stop using synthetic equivalents.
Greenpeace delivered a 33,000-strong petition in January asking the Government to phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Senior campaigner Steve Abel pointed the finger at industrial dairy farming for allegedly “poisoning” public and private water sources for profit.
The environmental campaigners launched a new petition last week calling on the minister of health and the Government’s new water regulating body to lower the recognised safe limits for nitrates in drinking water.
They wanted limits lowered from 11.3 milligrams per litre of water to 0.87mg per litre after studies purported to show a link between nitrates and bowel cancer, although those findings have been contested by Bowel Cancer NZ.
Poultry litter distributors have reported a steady increase in demand from farmers for the waste product, with the only limitation being the finite supply available.
Bennett Fertilisers, which specialised in distributing chicken litter in the top half of the North Island, had experienced a 15 per cent increase in demand over the past three years.
Sales manager Allan Eddy said the market for the natural fertiliser was growing steadily as more farmers were considering alternatives to synthetic fertilisers.
He said chicken litter was a “heavily sought after” product because it was usually cheaper than synthetic nitrogen and was good for soil health. About 60 per cent of the company's product was used for horticulture, and the rest was spread between dairy, drystock and maize farmers.
“It’s not a hidden secret that synthetic nitrates leach profusely.”
Canterbury based Poulfert Ltd also reported rising demand from the region’s farmers, but the company's growth was limited by how much product was available.
Owners Marty and Tracey Peoples said the broiler industry produced thousands of tonnes of waste a year in Canterbury and all of it went back into the region.
Their customers had a preference for naturally-based fertilisers, and were using them to support their farm management systems.
Quin Environmentals managing director Bert Quin said New Zealand produced about 900,000 tonnes of chicken litter each year and most was used immediately on pasture, maize or other crops, and kiwifruit and avocado orchards.
“It’s not a very recognised resource and is far more valuable than most people including farmers realise.”
More than half the nitrogen present in chicken litter was in organic form and released slower than the synthetic form, with less ability to leach, he said.
Synthetic nitrogen use rocketed alongside the intensification of dairying and, although it had plateaued in recent years, he believed the amount being used per hectare on dairy farms was “still far too high”.
South Canterbury regenerative dairy farmer Bryan Clearwater described the use of synthetic nitrogen in the dairy industry as “rampant”.
It was good that farmers were utilising chicken litter as a natural form of nitrogen, but it was not a long--term solution for decreasing nitrate levels, he said.
“It’s window dressing and nothing more.”
Clearwater, who has been farming organically at Peel Forest for 20 years, said he was heartened by the farming community's “unprecedented” interest in regenerative agriculture – a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems.
“It’s certainly predominantly the younger generation who are ... looking 40 years ahead at their production costs, viability and social acceptability of contributing to solutions rather than being part of a problem.”
The status quo was not sustainable, and farmers needed to move on from “protecting their patch”, he said.
“Farmers ... know where the world is going, and they need to be on the right side of history.
“We are only part of the problem, but we sure as hell want to be part of the solution.”
A 2019 report by the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand found that phasing out the use of nitrogen would cost farmers $1.7 billion in lost productivity alone.
DairyNZ strategy and investment leader Dr David Burger said many farmers had already reduced their nutrient use ahead of requirements to make changes.
A 2020 survey of farms across Selwyn and Mid-Canterbury found farmers were already changing their irrigation systems and management, improving effluent systems or management, and reducing nitrogen fertiliser use.
In the Selwyn-Waihora zone, dairy farmers were working to reduce their nitrogen losses by 30 per cent by 2022, while those in the Hinds area were focused on reducing nitrogen losses by 15 per cent by 2025 and 36 per cent by 2035, Burger said.
“The dairy sector is actively reducing its environmental footprint.”