Closing nutrient cycles

The EU depends strongly on external sources for the supply of key fertilisers used in agriculture. Resource depletion and an increasing global demand for mineral fertilisers may, in the long term, lead to price tensions with an impact on food security. Mineral-based fertilisation also poses significant environmental problems, linked e.g. to the amounts of fossil energy needed to produce and transport these fertilisers. At the same time, large amounts of minerals are being dispersed in the environment through a large variety of organic waste streams, resulting in soil, water and air pollution. Agro-food specialisation has led to regional imbalances: whilst in some regions a nutrient overabundance is causing severe environmental impacts (e.g. nitrate pollution), other are experiencing nutrient deficits. These contrasting effects may also be observed between locations within the same region.

Several technologies are being developed to recover and re-use nutrients from organic by-products, but many are insufficiently mature and the characteristics of end-products do not always match end-user preferences. It is expected that the EU ‘circular economy package’ will boost the emergence and commercialisation of such new fertilisers, hence it is important to understand their agronomic and environmental performance in order to establish adequate policies, guidelines and application rules.


Proposals shall address inter-regional and intra-regional imbalances through effective nutrient recovery from by-products of the agro-food or the forestry sectors, and conversion into novel fertilisers. Proposals should include a task to cluster with other projects financed under this topic, under topic SFS-39-2019 and – if possible – with other relevant projects in the field funded by Horizon 2020 (including under the BBI JU).

Proposals should address only one of the following sub-topics:

A.[2018] Understanding properties and impacts of bio-based fertilisers (RIA)

The project shall generate a knowledge basis that could support policy decisions related to novel fertilisers based on organic resources. On the basis of products that are currently available or under development, a comprehensive set of potential environmental impacts shall be identified and assessed across the fertiliser value chain, along with criteria related to their agronomic performance, safety and quality. Parameters and reference values shall be proposed as a basis for future policies related to new organic-based fertilisers. The project shall also propose reliable analytical measurement and testing methods for future compliance checks. An analysis of nutrient imbalances between regions in the EU shall be carried out, and the viability and sustainability of nutrient flows between regions through new organic-based fertilisers (including the understanding of logistic costs) shall be assessed.

B.[2019] Bio-based fertilisers from animal manure (IA)

Projects shall demonstrate processes for recovery of mineral nutrients and production of novel fertilisers from animal manure. Proposals shall perform a thorough analysis of the state of the art, and demonstrate that the activities proposed go beyond past or ongoing research, without overlaps. Technologies that are currently under development shall be further improved, and possibly integrated, to produce high quality end-products. Proposals shall address end-product marketability, safety, sustainability including emissions of greenhouse gasses and pollutants, and compliance with relevant EU regulations. Their suitability and acceptability under the organic farming regulatory framework shall also be analysed. An integrated assessment of the business model (economic, agronomic, social and environmental) shall be performed. The whole value chain shall be demonstrated to a near-commercial scale (TRL 6-7). Proposals shall fall under the concept of the 'multi-actor approach' including relevant actors such as agro-food industries, technology providers, research centres, end-users (farmers and farmer associations), or public administration.

C.[2020] Bio-based fertilisers from other by-products of the agro-food, fisheries, aquaculture or forestry sectors (IA)

The Commission considers that proposals requesting a contribution from the EU of up to EUR 6 million for sub-topic A and 8 million for sub-topics B and C would allow this specific challenge to be addressed appropriately. Nonetheless this does not preclude the submission and selection of proposals requesting other amounts. For sub-topics B and C, participation of partners from CELAC countries is encouraged.

Expected Impact

Proposals are expected to provide the technologies needed to develop a new generation of commercial, sustainable and safe fertilisers based on organic by-products, and the scientific knowledge needed to frame their use. This will help to:

  • set up a coherent policy framework for the sustainable production and use of organic-based fertilisers (sub-topic A);
  • replace conventional, non-renewable mineral fertilisers, hence reducing external dependence and risks related to depletion (sub-topics A, B and C);
  • balance nutrient concentrations between or within regions, thus increasing resource efficiency (sub-topics A, B and C);
  • reduce the environmental impacts linked to the dispersion of nutrients present in waste flows, or to the production of fossil-based fertilisers (sub-topics A, B and C);
  • develop new business models creating value from agro-food, fisheries, aquaculture or forestry by-products (sub-topics B and C).

In the long term, this shall contribute to a thriving, sustainable and circular bio-economy, the development of new business models that are synergic with other economic sectors, and therefore to the creation of wealth and quality jobs in rural areas.

Delegation Exception Footnote

It is expected that this topic will continue in 2020

Cross-cutting Priorities

  • Blue Growth
  • RRI
  • Socio-economic science and humanities
Application date
Social sciences : Management and Public administration, Economy, Environmental Sciences, Geography, Law