Demonstration of circular biofertilisers and implementation of optimized fertiliser strategies and value chains in rural communities

The RUSTICA projects provides a technical solution to convert organic residues from the fruit and vegetable sector into novel bio-based fertiliser products of high quality that address the needs of modern (organic) agriculture. The project’s ambition goes beyond the simple recovery of nutrients, and also includes the developments of economically viable and environmentally sustainable alternatives to mineral fertilisers with the same or improved agronomic value.

The technical solution consists of 5 conversion processes (carboxylic acid platform, microbial biomass production, electrodialysis, insect breeding and biochar production) which can be combined depending on the available waste streams, and integrated with state-of-the-art technologies such as composting. Synergies between the individual conversion processes will be sought and optimized to maximize economic and environmental benefits, and the processes will be demonstrated at TRL7. The resulting ingredients (microbial biomass, mineral nutrient concentrates, insect biomass, insect frass, insect chitin, biochar) will be combined to obtain tailor made fertiliser products adapted to specific crop needs.

Parallel with this technological innovation and integration, a multi-actor approach guarantees the implementation potential of the technologies in the agro-food chain, and will lead to sound business models. Several non-technical aspects (environmental and social LCA, legal framework, expected market developments…) will be evaluated in 4 European regions and 1 region in Colombia. Stakeholder involvement at each step guarantees the development of marketable end products for the fruit and vegetable sector, with a high replication potential to other agricultural sectors. Cooperation with other EU funded projects working on nutrient recovery from other waste products will stimulate a joint solution to evolve towards a sustainable and circular fertiliser management to close nutrient cycles within and between regions.



Overall objective

The overall objective of the RUSTICA project is to foster the technical validation, demonstration and implementation of bio-based fertiliser and soil improvement production techniques focusing on waste from the fruit and vegetable agro-food system to close nutrient cycles on a regional level. This objective will be achieved through a transdisciplinary multi-actor approach, aimed at validating, demonstrating and integrating 6 technological options for mineral nutrient recovery from fruit and vegetable waste streams in multi-valorisation configurations in 4 regions across the European Union. This RUSTICA approach will additionally be validated in the context of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), through a close cooperation with CIAT.

Specific objectives

  • To optimize and demonstrate the suitability of 6 technologies for the recovery of nutrients from fruit and vegetable residues as biofertiliser
  • To demonstrate the integration of technological solutions adapted to locally available fruit and vegetable waste streams with a combined NPK recovery of >90%
  • To demonstrate the production of 3 types of biofertilizer blends for circular re-use of nutrients present in fruit/vegetable waste streams, adapted to the local demand
  • To demonstrate the technical feasibility to replace 5-10% of the current mineral fertisliser use by circular biofertilisers at a regional level by 2040
  • Development of 5 regional multi-actor networks, capable of co-creating and exchanging knowledge, as well as co-developing a business model for a successful implementation of multi-valorisation of regional fruit/vegetable waste streams
  • Pilot scale implementation and demonstration of nutrient value chains in at least 2 study regions and fertiliser validation in 3 test regions
  • Map the impact of nutrient recovery technologies on the nutrient imbalances in the target regions, and develop a roadmap for a nutrient exchange strategy between regions based on the newly available biofertilisers
  • Systemic evaluation of the potential of the individual fruit and vegetable waste streams processing technologies and the combinations into multi-valorisation chains
  • Ensure replicability of the RUSTICA results and approach

RUSTICA contributes to the expected impacts set out in the Work Programme “Food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine, maritime and inland water research and the bio-economy” under the call “Rural Renaissance”, and more specifically the topic “CE-RUR-08-2020: Closing nutrient cycles” (Table 2.1). The RUSTICA proposal builds on the overall objective of the “Rural Renaissance” call to organise sustainable food and non-food value chains under changing conditions, and focusses specifically on combining end-user engagement and technological developments to implement circular economy principles in nutrient recycling in agricultural regions, with high replication potential.

Throughout its history, agriculture has been making use of organic and renewable sources of nutrients to improve crop yields, mostly in the form of manure and crop residues which were returned to the field. Only since the last 100 years with the invention of artificially produced fertilisers (e.g. ammonium nitrate, ammonium phosphate…) organic fertiliser products have become a minority in today’s mainstream farming practices. Due to their very specific composition and general, low-cost availability, these mineral fertilisers lead to an explosive increase in crop production yields and allowed us to produce more food on less space. But for many regions, the preferred use of imported mineral fertilisers (extraction of nitrogen from air using the Haber-Bosch process or mining of phosphate rock in Morocco and China and potash rock in Russia and Belarus) over manure and other organic fertilisers also lead to regional nutrient excesses with associated environmental and economic costs. In a way, it is absurd a farmer now often has to pay to e.g. convert the NH4 in manure to N2 in a treatment process, and pay a second time to buy this nitrogen back in the form of mineral fertilisers (produced by converting N2 to NH4). The RUSTICA process will provide a solution that is able to provide agriculture with biofertiliser products with the same advantages as mineral fertilisers (well-defined composition and release rates), but sourced from locally available waste streams, and tailored to the local soil properties and crops for long-term soil fertility and plant health.


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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement N. 101000527