Nitrogen compounds play a vital role in feeding a rising world populat ion but they also pollute air, soil and water, according to a study published April 11.
The study, carried out by 200 experts from 21 countries and 89 organizations, estimated the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe was 70 billion to 320 billion euros.
“Nearly, half the world’s population depends on synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizer for food, but measures are needed to reduce the impacts of nitrogen pollution,” said lead editor Mark Sutton of the U.K.’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
“Solutions include more efficient use of fertilizers and manures, and people choosing to eat less meat.”
Agriculture accounts for about 80 per cent of nitrogen emissions. The livestock sector, including crops grown for animal feed, accounts for most of that.
It only, however, accounts for 40 per cent of the cost as the nitrogen compounds produced through burning fossil fuels pose a greater threat to the environment.
The study was launched at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland that Sutton said would be run with “half meat portions.”
“The amount of livestock we choose to have is critical in determing the scale of the impacts,” Sutton said.
Nitrogen accounts for about 78 per cent of the earth’s atmosphere and only poses a threat to human health, soil, water and ecosystems when it is transformed into compounds such as nitrous oxide.
“Nitrogen is absolutely critical for human well-being but the challenge is how do we capture the benefits of nitrogen and minimize the adverse effects,” said Robert Watson, chief scientist at Britain’s Ministry for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs.
“It is not about getting rid of fertilizers, it is how do we use fertilizers in a much more careful way through precision agriculture so we capture those benefits for agricultural productivity without having these negative effects,” he told reporters at a briefing ahead of the report’s release.
Watson said NOx (nitrogen oxides) emissions had dropped 60 per cent since 1990 in Britain and nitrogen fertilizer use had dropped by 19 per cent between 1998 and 2010.
“Things are going in the right direction; what this (report) is saying is we need to go further to avoid this environmental damage,” he said.