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Since it is such a common element in nature, until recently, nitrogen was ignored as being a pollutant. Nitrogen is a natural part of the ecosystem and helps to increase the rate of plant growth. Because of this benefit, nitrogen has been used frequently, during the last decades, as an agriculture fertilizer. However, there are negative effects brought on by nitrogen that many people aren’t aware of.
Agricultural fertilizers and burning fuels are sources of nitrogen pollution. These occurances involve the predominance of nitrogen in the atmosphere which lead to the greenhouse effect, pollution of waters and soil, and to breathing and heart problems for living creatures. Calculating the impact on health, by respiratory problems, asthma and cancer; the nitrogen pollution reduces life expectancy of any European by six months.
Accordingly to a recent study on European Nitrogen Assessment, in Europe each person pays between £130 and £650 per year for the cost of nitrogen pollution, while on average, the total amount rises to €70bn-€320bn: costs of pollution on air, soil, water, increased greenhouse gases and damage to wildlife.
BBC News announced that 80 percent of the nitrogen in crops feeds livestock, not people. Meat consume is heavily increasing the nitrogen pollution, especially in Europe. Dr. Mark Sutton, from UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, one of the leaders of the study, according to the Telegraph: “Amazingly, livestock consume around 85 per cent of the 14 million tones of nitrogen in crops harvested or imported into the EU; only 15 per cent is used to feed humans directly.
European nitrogen use is therefore not primarily an issue of food security, but one of luxury consumption”. The advice is not to become all vegetarians, but at least to try a “demitarian” regime, to try a reduction of meat consumption. Other advice, to lesson the negative impacts seen by nitrogen, are being shared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The Department said, in order to improve soil-management practices, using conservation-tillage, crop rotation, and cover crops as wheat, rye and other grasses will be neccessary. Among agricultural strategies through methods as “precision farming” (fertilizers calculated with precision for each surface), manure recycling, genetically modified crops (which absorb nitrogen from air), governments should adhere to a new set of policies, at least in Europe, said professor Bob Watson, Chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Even though European Union statistics shows that the emission of nitrogen decreased from 13.84 million tones in 1997 to 10.94 in 2007, improvements are still required. “There have been and still are many attempts to control nitrogen but we believe the big challenge is to link existing policy areas and make them work together.” stated Sutton.
However solutions reside also in the hands of individuals by cutting down meat consumption, and choosing a responsible industrial and agricultural business.