The Heavy Cost of Nitrogen Pollution

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A tractor sprays liquid fertilizer on an early growth corn field. Although this will increase the crop yield, what impact could nitrogen pollution have on the environment?
Russ Munn/AgStock Images/Corbis

THE GIST

- The addition of nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers revolutionized agriculture in the early 20th century.

- The benefits of using nitrogen-based fertilizers, however, are dwarfed by the impact of nitrogen pollution on health and the environment.

Nitrogen pollution costs Europe between 70 and 320 billion euros ($100bn-$460bn) per year in its impact on health and the environment, according to a major European study launched in Britain on Monday.

The first European Nitrogen Assessment, the result of a five-year research program, found that the costs represented more than double the benefits for the continent's agriculture sector.

The ENA was to be launched Monday at a five-day international conference in Edinburgh.

The study was carried out by 200 experts from 21 countries and 89 organizations, who came up with recommendations on how to reduce the amount of nitrogen in water, the air, the earth and ecosystems.

The invention of synthetic fertilizer in the early 20th century revolutionized agriculture, multiplying yields and improving quality.

However, the amount of nitrogen in the environment has doubled on the world level, and tripled in Europe.

ENA coordinator Mark Sutton said: "More than half the world's population relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer for food production, but measures are necessary to reduce the impact of nitrogen pollution.

"The solutions include more efficient usage of mineral and organic fertilizer (manure, liquid manure and compost) and eating habits aimed at more moderate meat consumption.

"We have the know-how to reduce nitrogen pollution, but we must start applying these solutions at the European level in an integrated way."

The event in the Scottish capital will bring together scientists and policy makers to launch the ENA and discuss the latest scientific progress on nitrogen.

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