The European Commission has set guidelines for voluntary green labels for phosphate fertilizers with ultra-low levels of cadmium to battle the build-up of the carcinogenic heavy metal in soil.
Food is the #1 source of cadmium contamination among non-smokers, and some phosphate fertilizers contain high levels of this toxin. The Commission reached a decision in 2019 that regulating and reducing the level of cadmium in phosphate fertilizers is the only way to reduce the risk of accumulation in soils.
First discovered in Germany in 1817, cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that occurs naturally around the world. It is frequently found in sedimentary phosphate deposits, and as such, is found in some fertilizers used by EU farmers. The World Health Organization has classified the metal as a human carcinogen, and many studies have already shown the detrimental health effects of cadmium. A recent study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health also linked cadmium to more severe flu and pneumonia infections – an issue which becomes even more relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EU’s voluntary green label will be applicable for all fertilizers with less than 20mg of cadmium per kg of P2O5 nutrient. The decision to introduce voluntary labelling for ultra-low cadmium fertilizers was made at the same time as a rule barring trade in phosphate fertilizers containing more than 60 mg / kg was approved. The latter is due to come into effect in 2022.
The EU move is in line with the goals of both its Green Deal and its new Farm to Fork Strategy. The label will allow farmers to quickly and easily pick fertilizer products that reduce the risks of cadmium-related pollution of their land. In this way, it will facilitate the EU’s move towards more sustainable agriculture and, in the long term, overall higher quality food across Europe.
Various European countries have already recognised the need to act and have put in place their own national derogations. Such derogations are already in place in 21 EU countries, including Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland, where a cadmium limit of 21 mg per kg of P2O5 was set as far back as 1986.
However, it is not just in Europe where awareness – and concern – are rising. Last month, a coalition of leading fertilizer and soil experts published a major review on managing cadmium in agricultural systems around the world. The group reported that cadmium, which is easily transferred through the food chain to humans, presents a real health hazard.
Arianne Phosphates, a Canadian phosphates producer, launched a project last year called Lac a Paul Greenfield which will focus on producing phosphate concentrate that is low in cadmium and other harmful elements.
Meanwhile, Russian low-cadmium fertilizer producer PhosAgro welcomed the EU labels.
“PhosAgro fully supports initiatives to provide farmers with access to fertilizers that can help prevent the accumulation of toxic elements such as cadmium in the soil,” Chief Executive Andrey Guryev said in a statement. “Additional incentives are being created to improve production technologies to ensure the sustainability of agriculture and to take care of soil fertility and public health.”
PhosAgro recently developed a new digital field monitoring system with Exact Farming that can monitor the condition of crops and adjust mineral nutrition based on remote sensor data, vegetation analysis, meteorological data and information from farms. Together with voluntary green labelling, such initiatives could give farmers a much stronger hand in optimising fertilizer use and by proxy, minimising levels of soil pollution.
Irina Bokova, PhosAgro Independent Board Member and former Director-General of UNESCO, added: “It is important that people, not only in the EU but all over the world, can make more informed choices when buying food, with a better understanding of what they are made of and how they are produced, and what nutrients were used for the cultivation of agricultural products.”