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This paper examines the impact of food and energy production on the global N cycle by contrasting N flows in the late-19th century with those of the late-20th century. We have a good understanding of the amounts of reactive N created by humans, and the primary points of loss to the environment. However, we have a poor understanding of nitrogen's rate of accumulation in environmental reservoirs, which is problematic because of the cascading effects of accumulated N in the environment. The substantial regional variability in reactive nitrogen creation, its degree of distribution, and the likelihood of increased rates of reactive-N formation (especially in Asia) in the future creates a situation that calls for the development of a Total Reactive Nitrogen Approach that will optimize food and energy production and protect environmental systems.
The N budget for Europe (excluding the former Soviet Union) indicates that the 3 principal driving forces of the acceleration of the European N cycle are fertilizer production (14 Mt (mill. tonnes) N yr−1), fossil fuel combustion and other industry (3.3 Mt N yr−1) and import of N in various products (7.6 Mt N yr−1). The various leaks of reactive N species from European food, energy and industrial production systems are estimated and their effects on human health and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are assessed. Future European environmental policy measures to close the N cycle and to reduce leaks of reactive N can best focus on the three major driving forces, taking into consideration the possible consequences in the N cascade. Critical loads may be useful tools in determining N-emission ceilings and developing integrated policies for regulating N flows such as fertilizer use and imports and N levels.
We analyzed nitrogen budgets at national and regional levels on a timeline from 1961–2030 using a model, IAP-N 1.0. The model was designed based upon the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methods using Asia-specific parameters and a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) database. In this paper we discuss new reactive-nitrogen and its various fates, and environmental nitrogen enrichment and its driving forces. The anthropogenic reactive nitrogen of Asia dramatically increased from ∼ 14.4 Tg N yr−1 in 1961 to ∼ 67.7 Tg N yr−1 in 2000 and is likely to be 105.3 Tg N yr−1 by 2030. Most of the anthropogenic reactive-nitrogen has accumulated in the environment. We found that an increasing demand for food and energy supplies and the lack of effective measures to improve the efficiency of fertilizer nitrogen use, as well as effective measures for the prevention of NOx emissions from fossil-fuel combustion, are the principal drivers behind the environmental nitrogen-enrichment problem. This problem may be finally solved by substituting synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with new high-efficiency nitrogen sources, but solutions are dependent on advances in biological technology.
Nitrogen inputs to the US from human activity doubled between 1961 and 1997, with most of the increase in the 1960s and 1970s. The largest increase was in use of inorganic N fertilizer, but emissions of NOx from fossil-fuel combustion also increased substantially. In 1961, N fixation in agricultural systems was the largest single source of reactive N in the US. By 1997, even though N fixation had increased, fertilizer use and NOx emissions had increased more rapidly and were both larger inputs. In both 1961 and 1997, two thirds of reactive N inputs were denitrified or stored in soils and biota, while one third was exported. The largest export was in riverine flux to coastal oceans, followed by export in food and feeds, and atmospheric advection to the oceans. The consumption of meat protein is a major driver behind N use in agriculture in the US Without change in diet or agricultural practices, fertilizer use will increase over next 30 years, and fluxes to coastal oceans may increase by another 30%. However, substantial reductions are possible.
Anthropogenic changes to the global N cycle are important in part because added N alters the composition, productivity, and other properties of many natural ecosystems substantially. Why does added N have such a large impact? Why is N in short supply in so many natural ecosystems? Processes that slow the cycling of N relative to other elements and processes that control ecosystem-level inputs and outputs of N could cause N supply to limit the dynamics of ecosystems. We discuss stoichiometric differences between terrestrial plants and other organisms, the abundance of protein-precipitating plant defenses, and the nature of the C–N bond in soil organic matter as factors that can slow N cycling. For inputs, the energetic costs of N fixation and their consequences, the supply of nutrients other than N, and preferential grazing on N-fixers all could constrain the abundance and/or activity of biological N-fixers. Together these processes drive and sustain N limitation in many natural terrestrial ecosystems.
Aquatic ecosystems respond variably to nutrient enrichment and altered nutrient ratios, along a continuum from fresh water through estuarine, coastal, and marine systems. Although phosphorus is considered the limiting nutrient for phytoplankton production in freshwater systems, the effects of atmospheric nitrogen and its contribution to acidification of fresh waters can be detrimental. Within the estuarine to coastal continuum, multiple nutrient limitations occur among nitrogen, phosphorus, and silicon along the salinity gradient and by season, but nitrogen is generally considered the primary limiting nutrient for phytoplankton biomass accumulation. There are well-established, but nonlinear, positive relationships among nitrogen and phosphorus flux, phytoplankton primary production, and fisheries yield. There are thresholds, however, where the load of nutrients to estuarine, coastal and marine systems exceeds the capacity for assimilation of nutrient-enhanced production, and water-quality degradation occurs. Impacts can include noxious and toxic algal blooms, increased turbidity with a subsequent loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, oxygen deficiency, disruption of ecosystem functioning, loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity, shifts in food webs, and loss of harvestable fisheries.
The sources and distribution of anthropogenic nitrogen (N), including N fertilization and N fixed during fossil-fuel combustion, are rapidly becoming globally distributed. Responses of terrestrial ecosystems to anthropogenic N inputs are likely to vary geographically. In the temperate zone, long-term N inputs can lead to increases in plant growth and also can result in over-enrichment with N, eventually leading to increased losses of N via solution leaching and trace-gas emissions, and in some cases, to changes in species composition and to ecosystem decline. However, not all ecosystems respond to N deposition similarly; their response depends on factors such as successional state, ecosystem type, N demand or retention capacity, land-use history, soils, topography, climate, and the rate, timing, and type of N deposition. We point to some of the conditions under which anthropogenic impacts can be significant, some of the factors that control variations in response, and some areas where uncertainty is large due to limited information.
Reactive-nitrogen (Nr) has a wide variety of beneficial and detrimental effects on human health. The most important of the beneficial effects are increasing global and regional food supplies and increased nutritional quality of available foods. However, lack of adequate dietary intake of amino acids and proteins is a serious cause of malnutrition when food supplies are inadequate because of poverty, drought, floods, wars, and displacements of people as refugees. There is sufficient, though limited, quantitative data indicating that increased circulation of Nr in the environment is responsible for significant human health effects via other exposure pathways. Nr can lead to harmful health effects from airborne occupational exposures and population-wide indoor and outdoor air pollution exposures to nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Nr can also affect health via water pollution problems, including methemoglobinemia from contaminated ground water, eutrophication causing fish kills and algal blooms that can be toxic to humans, and via global warming. The environmental pollutants stemming from reactive nitrogen are ubiquitous, making it difficult to identify the extent to which Nr exerts a specific health effect. As all populations are susceptible, continued interdisciplinary investigations are needed to determine the extent and nature of the beneficial and harmful effects on human health of nitrogen-related pollutants and their derivatives.
Nitrogen was the most commonly yield-limiting nutrient in all pre-industrial agricultures. Only the Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia broke this barrier. The rising dependence on nitrogenous fertilizers, which represents the largest human interference in the biospheric N cycle, has two different roles. In affluent nations it helps to produce excess of food in general, and of animal foods in particular, and it boosts agricultural exports. But for at least a third of humanity in the world's most populous countries the use of N fertilizers makes the difference between malnutrition and adequate diet. Our understanding of human N (protein) needs has undergone many revisions and although some uncertainties still remain it is clear that average protein intakes are excessive in rich countries and inadequate for hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. More dietary protein will be needed to eliminate these disparities but the future global use of N fertilizers can be moderated not just by better agronomic practices but also by higher feeding efficiencies and by gradual changes of prevailing diets. As a result, it could be possible to supply adequate nutrition to the world's growing population without any massive increases of N inputs.
The global challenge of meeting increased food demand and protecting environmental quality will be won or lost in cropping systems that produce maize, rice, and wheat. Achieving synchrony between N supply and crop demand without excess or deficiency is the key to optimizing trade-offs amongst yield, profit, and environmental protection in both large-scale systems in developed countries and small-scale systems in developing countries. Setting the research agenda and developing effective policies to meet this challenge requires quantitative understanding of current levels of N-use efficiency and losses in these systems, the biophysical controls on these factors, and the economic returns from adoption of improved management practices. Although advances in basic biology, ecology, and biogeochemistry can provide answers, the magnitude of the scientific challenge should not be underestimated because it becomes increasingly difficult to control the fate of N in cropping systems that must sustain yield increases on the world's limited supply of productive farm land.
Globally, energy demand is projected to continue to increase well into the future. As a result, global NOx emissions are projected to continue on an upward trend for the foreseeable future as developing countries increase their standards of living. While the US has experienced improvements in reducing NOx emissions from stationary and mobile sources to reduce ozone, further progress is needed to reduce the health and ecosystem impacts associated with NOx emissions. In other parts of the world, (in developing countries in particular) NOx emissions have been increasing steadily with the growth in demand for electricity and transportation. Advancements in energy and transportation technologies may help avoid this increase in emissions if appropriate policies are implemented. This paper evaluates commercially available power generation and transportation technologies that produce fewer NOx emissions than conventional technologies, and advanced technologies that are on the 10-year commercialization horizon. Various policy approaches will be evaluated which can be implemented on the regional, national and international levels to promote these advanced technologies and ultimately reduce NOx emissions. The concept of the technology leap is offered as a possibility for the developing world to avoid the projected increases in NOx emissions.
A core goal of both US and European pollution control policies has been to establish rules and regulations pertaining to the movement of reactive-nitrogen (Nr) through the environment. This is manifest in US federal legislation such as the Clean Air Act Amendments and the Clean Water Act Amendments and in various protocols of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and its Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP). In this paper, we begin by reviewing the two US laws and their effectiveness and make some comparisons with the approaches used mainly in Europe by the UNECE and CLRTAP. Next we use the Mississippi drainage/Gulf of Mexico hypoxia case study to highlight the importance of applying a “systems approach” to address the reactive nitrogen problem at the regional scale. After briefly posing a number of unanswered questions related to nitrogen control policies, we conclude by sketching a blueprint for future actions related to the development of improved policies to regulate reactive nitrogen.
The notion of management has undergone many changes during the past century. Nowadays, management is perceived as “specialized activity to achieve targets.” Skill in management is the single most important factor determining the economic and environmental performance of agroecosystems. Nutrient management is “management of nutrients to achieve agronomic and environmental targets;” it requires proper understanding of nutrient cycling, site- and farm-specific guidelines and technology, and often direct coaching. These activities are diverse and complicated, especially in mixed farming systems that involve both crop and animal production. To be effective, economic and environmental targets must be coherent, flexible, and controllable. They also must be defined and implemented quantitatively at strategic, tactical, and operational levels. Data from farms in Poland and The Netherlands are used to show how economic incentives, provided through governmental policies and measures in both countries, can improve nutrient-use efficiency by a factor of 2 on many intensively managed mixed farming systems.
At 81.7 million tonnes (Mt), commercial fertilizer nitrogen (N) accounts for approximately half of all N reaching global croplands today and supplies basic food needs for at least 40% of the population. The challenge is to continue to help meet that need while minimizing the risk of negative environmental impacts through improved N-use efficiency. Fertilizer-N efficiency on corn in the US has increased more than 30% over the last 20 years, but additional progress can be made for corn and other crops. Current N efficiency and productivity are generally lower in most of Asia than in North America, but they are improving. The fertilizer industry recognizes its crucial role in meeting basic human needs, now and in the future. It stands ready to meet the challenge of adopting new practices and technologies that will allow it to do so with greater efficiency and in a way that not only sustains life, but also sustains the quality of life.
Higher crop production normally demands higher nutrient application rates and consequently increased mineral nitrogen use. With food demand for 2030 estimated around 2800 mill. tonnes (t) yr−1, the corresponding mineral N consumption figure is 96 mill. t (78 mill. t yr−1 in 1995/1997). Global-level mineral N losses to the environment from mineral fertilizer use are currently 36 mill. t yr−1, worth USD 11 700 mill. and with adverse environmental impacts. However, innovative fertilizer-use efficiency (FUE) technologies enable increased production with a less than a proportionate increase in mineral-N use. Moreover, nitrogen-nutrient supplies can be augmented through improvements in agricultural production systems and in the exploitation of alternative sources such as biological nitrogen fixation (BNF). By 2030, with adequate policy, technology transfer, research and investment support, the on-farm adoption of BNF and FUE technologies could generate savings of 10 mill. t yr−1 of mineral N, worth USD 3300 mill.
Nitrogen oxides are released during atmospheric combustion of fossil fuels and biomass, and during the production of certain chemicals and products. They can react with natural or man-made volatile organic compounds to produce smog, or else can be further oxidized to produce particulate haze, or acid rain that can eutrophy land and water. The reactive nitrogen that begins in the energy sector thus cascades through the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and soils before being eventually partially denitrifed to the global warming and stratospheric ozone-depleting gas nitrous oxide or molecular nitrogen. This paper will suggest how an economic analysis of the nitrogen cycle can identify the most cost-effective places to intervene. Nitrogen oxides released during fossil-fuel combustion in vehicles, power plants and heating boilers can either be controlled by add-on emission control technology, or can be eliminated by many of the same technical options that lead to carbon dioxide reduction. These integrated strategies also address sustainability, economic development and national security issues. Similarly in industrial production, it is more effective to focus on redesigning industrial processes rather than on nitrogen oxide pollution elimination from the current system. This paper will suggest which strategies might be utilized to address multiple benefits rather than focusing on single pollutants.
A nitrogen decision support system in the form of a game (NitroGenius) was developed for the Second International Nitrogen Conference. The aims were to: i) improve understanding among scientists and policy makers about the complexity of nitrogen pollution problems in an area of intensive agricultural, industrial, and transportation activity (The Netherlands); and ii) search for optimal policy solutions to prevent pollution effects at lowest economic and social costs. NitroGenius includes a model of nitrogen flows at relevant spatial and temporal scales including emissions of ammonia and nitrogen oxides and contamination of surface- and groundwaters. NitroGenius also includes an economic model describing relationships for important sectors and impacts of different nitrogen control measures on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), unemployment, energy use, and environmental costs. About 50 teams played NitroGenius during the Second International Nitrogen Conference. The results show that careful planning and selection of abatement options can solve Dutch nitrogen problems at reasonable cost.