Smart nitrogen management can strongly reduce pollution

01/06/2023 - To increase food and feed supply, agriculture has used more and more industrial nitrogen fertilizers and manure. However, over half of these nitrogen inputs to croplands are currently lost to the environment, contributing to air pollution and its related diseases, water eutrophication, soil acidification, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Nitrogen pollution has become a global challenge and next crisis. An international team of researchers explored cost-effective nitrogen mitigation strategies for global croplands in a new study, now published in Nature.
Smart nitrogen management can strongly reduce pollution
Sidedressing nitrogen on rows of corn. (Photo: James Baltz/Unsplash)

The scientists show that if smart abatement measures were implemented on global croplands, these global changes could generate $476 billion in societal benefits for food supply, human health, ecosystems and climate, at a net abatement cost of only $19 billion. “However, these measures and technologies are seldom fully implemented by farmers due to many constraints, such as a high heterogeneity of best practices on the local scale and high implementation costs for farmers,” says lead-author Baojing Gu of Zhejiang University, China.

“The most important barrier is yet that many of the benefits of reducing nitrogen pollution are not seen by the farmers themselves, but only pay off for the society as a whole – in the form of clean and healthy air, clear lakes, and a biodiverse and resilient nature,” explains Benjamin Bodirsky from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, co-author of the study. Even more, farmers who spend time and efforts for reducing their nitrogen pollution to very low levels have difficulties competing against those who do not care, as they usually get the same market price for their grains but get no compensation for lowering the pollution for the environment.

Policies could yet correct this market failure. “The most elegant solution for the German context would be a nitrogen surplus tax,” says Benjamin Bodirsky. “It is like a tax on all the nitrogen that the crops have not taken up and which ends up polluting the environment. Such a tax would give sustainable farmers a competitive advantage instead of disadvantage, and would strongly reduce nitrogen pollution and the connected damages to human health and ecosystems.”


Baojing Gu, Xiuming Zhang, Shu Kee Lam, Yingliang Yu, Hans J.M. van Grinsven, Shaohui Zhang, Xiaoxi Wang, Benjamin Leon Bodirsky, Sitong Wang, Jiakun Duan, Chenchen Ren, Lex Bouwman, Wim de Vries, Jianming Xu, Mark A. Sutton, Deli Chen: Cost-effective mitigation of nitrogen pollution from global croplands. Nature (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05481-8


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