The annual cost of the damage caused by reactive nitrogen from agricultural processes is estimated at between 55 and 280 billion and a new a new European study has found that agriculture accounts for 70% of the pollution.
Other contributions to air pollution from reactive nitrogen include vehicle use and industrial processes.
Nitrogen-related air pollution can result in people inhaling small particulates into the lungs and can cause ground-level ozone which is an irritant gas formed by the action of sunlight on reactive nitrogen.
More than 200 experts across 21 European countries carried out the research and the resulting report was launched at a conference in Edinburgh, UK, on Monday, April 11.
It concluded that the costs of dealing with the damage caused by reactive nitrogen pollution were more than double the economic gains from using nitrogen-based fertilisers.
It identified the increase in meat consumption – and therefore of the amount of animal fodder that needs to be produced – is a significant contributor to pollution from reactive nitrogen.
The report says that although Europe needs some nitrogen fertilisers for food security many farmers apply fertilisers carelessly to crops so that excess nitrogen runs off the land to pollute water supplies. The situation is compounded by the amount of reactive nitrogen released into the atmosphere from animal manure.
Mark Sutton, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the lead editor of the report, has said that 80% of the nitrogen in crops feeds livestock and not people and that it is more efficient for people to get their protein from plants rather than animals.
He said that solutions include more efficient use of fertilisers and manures and people choosing to eat less meat.
The US-based Worldwatch Institute reports that global meat production has increased by 20% since 2002.
Consumers can play their part, therefore, by reducing their meat consumption, which can also have health benefits, but farmers, too, need to play their part.
Use of the traditional chemical fertilisers is declining in Europe thanks to tighter legislation and alternative and more environmentally friendly low-tech alternative agricultural products are being developed.
They biodegrade quickly and leave little or no residues in the food produced. Farmers can use a combination of biopesticides, biofungicides and yield enhancers to reduce dependence on nitrogen-based fertiliser as part of a more sustainable farming regime.
Their benefits include minimal impact on the environment and humans and they can also extend the effective life of conventional because the plants do not build up tolerance to their use in the way that they do to the conventional products, which also do not contain organic matter that can replenish the soil.
However, many biopesticides developers emphasise that in addition to speeding up and integrating the regulation of the new low-tech agricultural products there needs to be a robust programme of education so that farmers understand how to use them properly.
Users need to work closely with product dealers and distributors to understand exactly how to apply these new products, how frequently and the best methods to use to ensure complete crop coverage.
Copyright (c) 2011 Alison Withers