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Nitrogen pollution from food production could be reduced by 50%

A report from the United Nations Centre for Ecology & Hydrology outlines a strategy to drastically reduce nitrogen pollution from agriculture and the food system in Europe. 

Nitrogen pollution

Nitrogen is essential for plant growth, yet its excessive use in agriculture, primarily through animal excretion and synthetic fertilizers, leads to severe environmental impacts. 

The report highlights that up to 80% of nitrogen leaks into the environment in harmful forms like ammonia, nitrogen oxides, nitrous oxide, and nitrate, causing air pollution and water quality degradation.

Recipe for change

The researchers identified a startling inefficiency in the European food system, where only 18% of nitrogen is effectively utilized, leaving the vast majority to pollute air, water, and soils. The report presents a “recipe” to halve these losses.

  • Reducing meat and dairy consumption: Halving the average European consumption of meat and dairy, currently around 70kg per year, and shifting to plant-based diets.
  • Improving fertilizer management: More efficient application and storage of fertilizers and manure.
  • Cutting down food waste: Reducing waste by retailers and consumers.
  • Enhancing wastewater treatment: Capturing nitrogen from sewage to reduce emissions and recycle nutrients for field application.
  • Incentivizing sustainable food choices: Offering financial incentives for low-impact foods and incorporating them into public sector catering.
  • Policy support: Implementing policies that support a sustainable transition in food production and consumption.
  • Collaborative effort: Engaging farmers, industry, government, and consumers in joint efforts to reduce nitrogen losses.

Implications of nitrogen pollution reduction

“Action does not begin and end at the farm gate; it requires a holistic approach involving not only farmers but policymakers, retailers, water companies and individuals. It is also not saying we should all become vegan,” said Professor Mark Sutton.

“Our analysis finds that a broad package of actions including a demitarian approach (halving meat and dairy consumption) scored most highly in looking to halve nitrogen waste by 2030.”

The research builds on the 2014 “Nitrogen on the Table” report, which identified livestock as a major contributor to Europe’s nitrogen emissions. It suggests that plant-based diets are not only healthier but also more environmentally efficient, requiring less land and fertilizers.

The recent energy and fertilizer price hikes, partly due to the Ukraine war, underline the urgency to minimize wasteful nitrogen losses. 

Plant-based diets

Study lead author Dr. Adrian Leip from the European Commission emphasized the resilience benefits of plant-based diets amidst the current food, energy, and climate crises.

“The unprecedented rise of energy, fertilizer and food prices since 2021 underlines the need to address the vulnerability of the current food system,” said Dr. Liep.

“Plant-based diets require less land and fertilisers, reduce energy use and increase our resilience to the current multi-crises: food, energy, climate. Freeing up land to restore habitats would help tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.”

The researchers evaluated 144 scenarios involving varying degrees of dietary changes, agricultural practices, and wastewater treatment investments. 

The team found that the balanced approach of halving meat and dairy consumption combined with improved farm management could potentially reduce nitrogen losses by 49% and offered the highest net societal benefit.

The future of nitrogen pollution

The report, a critical contribution from the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen of the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, will be accessible from the taskforce’s website from December 20, 2023. 

In summary, the research presents a comprehensive and actionable blueprint to address one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. It shows that a collective effort can lead to significant improvements in both environmental and human health.


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