Reducing Dangerous Effects Of Nitrogen With Mitigation Efforts

By Shweta Iyer on May 13, 2014 5:48 PM EDT

nitrogen
A recent study analyzed mitigation efforts that can reduce nitrogen pollution by half. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

We can't live with it and we can't live without it. "Nitrogen is an irreplaceable nutrient and a true life-saver as it helps agriculture to feed a growing world population - but it is unfortunately also a dangerous pollutant," said Benjamin Bodirsky, according to a press release Tuesday.

Bodirsky is the lead-author of a study, which analyzes mitigation efforts that can reduce nitrogen pollution by half. Various human activities have led to the release of huge amounts of 'reactive nitrogen' like ammonia and nitrous oxide that reach the stratosphere and deplete the ozone. Nitrous oxide in our atmosphere results in destabilization of water ecosystems and ground-level ozone, responsible for a wide posse of health conditions like respiratory problems, lung damage, increased risks of cancer, and weakening of the immune system.

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Nitrogen pollution is also resulting in huge economic losses with Europe alone losing 60-280 billion euros annually. Most of these losses come from nitrogen pollution caused by using fertilizers. This prompted the scientists to come up with mitigation measures, the effects of which were gauged using computer simulations.

"It became clear that without mitigation the global situation may markedly deteriorate as the global food demand grows," says Bodirsky, who is also affiliated to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Colombia (CIAT). "A package of mitigation actions can reverse this trend, yet the risk remains that nitrogen pollution still exceeds safe environmental thresholds."

The study shows that mitigation efforts in both food production and consumption is needed to reduce nitrogen pollution. Currently, one in every two tons of nitrogen goes unabsorbed by the crops, eroded by rain, blown by winds, or decomposed by microorganisms. To reduce losses and prevent pollution, farmers can more carefully target fertilizer application to plants' needs, using soil measurements. Organic fertilizers like animal dung can also be put to good use while fertilizing.

"Mitigation costs are currently many times lower than damage costs," says co-author Alexander Popp. "For consumers in developed countries, halving food waste, meat consumption and related feed use would not only benefit their health and their wallet," Popp adds. "Both changes would also increase the overall resource efficiency of food production and reduce pollution."

"The nitrogen cycle is interwoven with the climate system in various ways," Hermann Lotze- Campen points out, co-author of the study and co-chair of PIK's research domain Climate Impacts and Vulnerabilities. While nitrous oxide is a major greenhouse gas, light-scattering nitrogen aerosols cool the climate. Studies have also shown that excess nitrogen released from mining activities have been absorbed by forest trees helping them grow.

"Currently the health effects of nitrogen pollution are clearly more important, because the different climate effects largely cancel out," says Lotze-Campen. "But this may change - hence limiting nitrogen would have the double benefit of helping our health today and avoiding climate risks in the future."

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