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Photo: iStockphoto/gregul
Published: February 18, 2013

Smarter use of nutrients will help clean up the planet, say scientists

Press release |
A new report from the IGBP-sponsored International Nitrogen Initiative highlights how humans have massively altered the natural flows of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients.
While these alterations have had huge benefits for world food and energy production, it has caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health, causing toxic algal blooms, killing fish, threatening sensitive ecosystems and contributing to climate change.  

“Our Nutrient World” will be launched at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum being held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 18 to 22 February 2013. The study was carried out by nearly 50 experts from 14 countries.

The scientists suggest that a 20% improvement in nutrient use efficiency by 2020 would reduce the annual use of nitrogen fertilizer by 20 million tonnes. They term this global aspirational goal “20:20 for 2020”. Their analysis shows how this could provide a net saving worth around 170 (46 to 400) billion US dollars per year. This figure includes implementation costs and financial benefits from reduced nitrogen use and improvements to the environment and human health.

The report stops short of recommending global legislation to control nutrient use, but recognizes that this a global problem, especially given the global trade in agricultural products.  It calls for an intergovernmental framework to address these issues, and proposes a road map of how such an agreement would look.  

Lead author of the report, Professor Mark Sutton from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said, “Our analysis shows that by improving the management of the flow of nutrients we can help protect the environment, climate and human health, while addressing food and energy security concerns.”

Pollution sources considered in the report include emissions from agriculture and combustion of fossil fuel. Globally around 80% of harvested nitrogen and phosphorus is consumed by livestock rather than directly by people, showing how global nutrient supply and pollution are dominated by humans’ choice to consume animal products.

The report proposes a package of ten key actions to reduce these pollution threats, and makes recommendations for shared action by governments, business and citizens.  

Key points include:

  • Actions that improve the management of nutrients in agriculture, including crops, livestock and manure management. Measures include a range of techniques which are already available, but typically not yet applied, including precision agricultural methods suitable for both developed and developing countries. One example already being used in Bangladesh is to ‘plant’ large fertilizer pellets into the ground, preventing ammonia emission into the air.
  • Actions to reduce nutrient losses from industry and waste water treatment, including the recycling of available resources. A long-term ambition is identified to develop methods to recapture nitrogen oxides from combustion sources, which alone represents a lost resource worth around 39 billion dollars per year.
  • Actions to improve local optimization of nutrient flows, connecting arable and livestock farming to improve nutrient recycling opportunities.
  • Lowering personal consumption of animal protein among populations consuming high rates by voluntary reduction and avoiding excess. With rapidly increasing meat and dairy consumption, as Asia and Latin America aspire to European and North American norms, our diet choices have a huge potential to influence future levels of global nutrient pollution.
Co-author Dr Bruna Grizzetti, based at CNRS/Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) in Paris, France, said, “The option of localizing agricultural production is a really important one. Crop and livestock farming are often separated by many 100s of km. Localisation helps improve nutrient recycling, reducing nutrient losses, while bringing the production benefits and pollution responsibilities closer together.”

Co-author Professor Oene Oenema based at Alterra and Wageningen University, the Netherlands,  said, "Farmers in various countries can greatly decrease nutrient losses and increase nutrient use efficiency through coherent packages of measures. This efficiency gain is the result of research, education, demonstration, novel technologies and improved management techniques."

The report highlights how substantial progress has been made in some countries in reducing emissions from combustion sources and waste water treatment. By comparison, much less progress has so far been made in reducing emissions from agriculture or regarding citizens own choices.  The relationships highlight the importance of working with key ‘cluster points’ in nutrient chains where a few key individuals or communities, such as local leaders, supermarkets and governments exercise substantial control.

Professor Sutton said, “One option is to extend and strengthen the mandate of an existing agreement called the ‘Global Programme of Action for the protection of the marine environment from land-based activities’ (GPA). By clubbing together to meet multiple global challenges for food, energy, water and air pollution, climate and health, a much stronger gravity to motivate action can be expected.”

Notes to editors

1. Lead author of ‘Our Nutrient World’ and chair of the ‘International Nitrogen Initiative’ (INI), Professor Mark Sutton is based at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Edinburgh, UK.

2. To request an interview with Prof. Sutton or co-authors, please contact Dr Barnaby Smith, Media Relations Manager at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Mobile: +44 (0) 7920 295384, Email: bpgs@ceh.ac.uk

3. Dr Bruna Grizzetti is based at CNRS/Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) in Paris, France (contributor to the report and expert on nutrient pollution).

4. Prof. Oene Oenema is based at Alterra, the Netherlands and is also a professor at Wageningen University, The Netherlands (contributor to the report and co-chair of the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) .

5. Reference: Sutton M.A. et al. (2013) Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. Global Overview of Nutrient Management. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology on behalf of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management and the International Nitrogen Initiative. 114pp.

6. The “Global Overview on Nutrient Management” was commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and conducted by the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) and the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), under the lead of the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.  The commission was a direct response to the recognized success of the European Nitrogen Assessment, published in 2011, and seeks to go to the next stage to look at the global picture and the interactions between the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles.

7. Pre embargo the full report (low and high resolution versions) is available from this link: http://yousend.it/X7RpsT

8. The report will available on-line after the reporting embargo ends at at the following locations:
www.initrogen.org and www.gpa.unep.org/gpnm

9. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is the UK's Centre of Excellence for integrated research in the land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. CEH is part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), employs more than 450 people at four major sites in England, Scotland and Wales, hosts over 150 PhD students, and has an overall budget of about £35m. CEH tackles complex environmental challenges to deliver practicable solutions so that future generations can benefit from a rich and healthy environment. web: www.ceh.ac.uk  twitter: @CEHScienceNews rss news feed: http://www.ceh.ac.uk/rss/rss.xml

10. Financial support for this project came from the Government of Norway through UNEP, GPA Coordination Office, the European Commission support through the ÉCLAIRE project, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (National Capability Support to CEH) and through the Macronutrients Cycles Programme (LTLS project), the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and other partners through the UNEP/GEF project ‘Global Foundations for Reducing Nutrient Enrichment and Oxygen Depletion from Land-based Pollution in Support of Global Nutrient Cycle’.

11. The report builds on the work of the previous European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA) launched in 2011, of which a 4-minute video is available on You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuwN6qxM7BU

12. The report deals with ‘reactive nitrogen’ which includes ammonia, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), nitrogen oxides (NOx) which form acid rain and smog, and nitrates,  as distinct from the ‘inert nitrogen’ which makes up 78% of the earth’s atmosphere. The report also deals with the future risks for global phosphorus supply and the associated environmental pollution.

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