Nitrogen, along with carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, is one of the fundamental elements that make life on Earth possible. Nitrogen makes up nearly 80% of the air we breathe and is a key factor in food security, human and environmental health, climate change, and the economy. The problem with nitrogen today—at least with agricultural nitrogen in the form of fertilizers—is like many others: There is a geopolitical divide between haves and have-nots. And, according to the researchers behind a new study, large-scale efforts are needed to address the environmental, economic, and social problems that surround the use, and misuse, of nitrogen around the world.
Agricultural nitrogen that doesn’t enter crops contaminates the land, water, and air in many parts of the world, particularly in developed countries with ample access to fertilizers. Unused amounts represent wasted nutrients that do not contribute to farmers’ yields and contribute to numerous health problems, as well as to ozone depletion, climate change, aquatic dead zones, water pollution, and other environmental problems.
In developing economies, though, farmers don’t have enough nitrogen. Without fertilizer, exhausted soils cannot support the crops that local populations need, and food insecurity contributes to social unrest, economic stagnation, malnutrition, and famine.
In a new paper, Houlton et al. consider the problems of the global nitrogen imbalance as well as proposed solutions and present a five-pronged approach to maximize the positive effects of agricultural nitrogen on our planet.