The most important fertilizer for producing food is, at the same time, one of the most important risks for human health: nitrogen.
Chemical compounds containing reactive nitrogen are major drivers of air and water pollution worldwide, and hence of diseases like asthma or cancer.
If no action is taken, nitrogen pollution could rise by 20 percent by 2050 in a middle-of-the-road scenario, according to a study now published by scientists of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Ambitious mitigation efforts, however, could decrease the pollution by 50 percent. The analysis is the very first to quantify this.
“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,” says Benjamin Bodirsky, lead-author of the study.
In the different forms it can take through chemical reactions, it massively contributes to respirable dust, leads to the formation of aggressive ground-level ozone, and destabilizes water ecosystems. Damages in Europe alone have been estimated at around 1-4 percent of economic output, worth billions of Euro.
About half of these nitrogen pollution damages are from agriculture. This is why the scientists ran extensive computer simulations to explore the effects of different mitigation measures.
***Both farmers and consumers would have to participate in mitigation***
“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.”
Only combined mitigation efforts both in food production and consumption could substantially reduce the risks, the study shows. Currently, every second ton of nitrogen put on the fields is not taken up by the crops but blown away by the wind, washed out by rain or decomposed by microorganisms.
To reduce losses and prevent pollution, farmers can more carefully target fertilizer application to plants’ needs, using soil measurements. Moreover, they should aim at efficiently recycling animal dung to fertilize the plants. “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.”
***“Health effects of nitrogen pollution more important than climate effects”***
“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. Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, on the one hand is one of the major greenhouse gases. On the other hand, nitrogen containing aerosols scatter light and thereby cool the climate.
And as fertilizing nutrient, nitrogen enhances the growth of forests which binds CO2. “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.”
Article: Bodirsky, B.L., Popp, A., Lotze-Campen, H., Dietrich, J.P., Rolinski, S., Weindl, I., Schmitz, C., Müller, C., Bonsch, M., Humpenöder, F., Biewald, A., Stevanovic, M. (2014): Reactive nitrogen requirements to feed the world in 2050 and potentials to mitigate nitrogen pollution. Nature Communications [DOI:10.1038/ncomms4858]
Weblink to Nature Communications where the article will be published: http://www.nature.com/naturecommunications
For further information please contact:
PIK press office
Phone: +49 331 288 25 07
Jonas Viering | PIK Potsdam
Climate change, population growth may lead to open ocean aquaculture
05.10.2017 | Oregon State University
New machine evaluates soybean at harvest for quality
04.10.2017 | University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
20.10.2017 | Information Technology
20.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
20.10.2017 | Interdisciplinary Research