One prophecy that has come true

Late last year I added to my GREENIE WATCH sidebar a prophecy that nitrogen would become a Greenie boogeyman. It now has. See below

Nitrogen pollution is costing every person in Europe up to £650 a year in damage to water, climate, health and wildlife, a study warns. Scientists behind the research said nitrogen was needed as fertiliser to help feed a growing world population – but suggested that eating less meat could reduce the amount of pollution caused by agriculture.

The report for the European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA) also suggests with 60% of costs of the nitrogen damage stemming from fossil fuels burned for energy generation and transport, more energy-efficient homes and less long-distance travel could help. More efficient use of fertilisers in food production is also needed, the report said. However, the researchers stopped short of calling for a fertiliser tax to reduce the use of nitrogen in agriculture.

Professor Bob Watson, chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, welcomed the first assessment of the Europe-wide impact of nitrogen, but warned that higher costs as a result of a tax would be passed on to consumers.

The report by 200 experts from 21 countries in Europe, puts the annual cost of nitrogen pollution on air, soils, water, increased greenhouse gases and damage to wildlife at €70bn-€320bn (£62bn-£282bn). The cost works out at between £130 and £650 a year for everyone in Europe.

Nitrogen contributes to air pollution that causes respiratory problems, such as asthma and cancers, and reduces life expectancy by six months across much of Europe. Nitrates in water are bad for human health and damage wildlife including fish stocks. Nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas.

The environmental effects of nitrogen were estimated at €25bn to €145bn (£22bn-£128bn), compared with the €25bn to €130bn (£22bn-£115bn) benefits to agriculture that fertilisers deliver.

Much of the nitrogen pollution from agricultural production is linked to meat and dairy farming, as the crops needed to feed them are grown with the help of fertilisers. Dr Mark Sutton, of the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: "The amount of livestock we choose to have is critical in determining the scale of impacts. The amount of animal protein we choose to eat is critical." He said the environmental impact of livestock was not limited to greenhouse gases from cows, with nitrogen used to grow crops to feed animals also having an impact.

In Europe, he said people were currently eating 70% more meat and dairy products than they needed for a healthy diet. He added that the report was not suggesting people become vegetarian, but they could cut down on meat – a "demitarian" diet – and that the conference to launch the study this week in Edinburgh would be serving half portions of meat.

Prof Watson said of the report: "Nitrogen is absolutely essential for human well-being. The challenge is how do we capture the benefits of nitrogen and minimise the impacts." He said that in the UK nitrous oxides had been reduced by 60% since 1990 and there had been a reduction in the use of nitrogen fertilisers of nearly a fifth since 1998. "Things are going in the right direction, but we do need to move faster to avoid this environmental damage," he warned.

The researchers said that the cost of putting in measures to tackle the problems of nitrogen pollution would be outweighed by the financial benefits the solutions would reap.


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