Thursday, January 14, 2016

Nitrogen emission-A new peep into hazards of modern food production system

Lot has been said and written about pollution of this planet by uncontrolled emission of green house gases CO2 and Methane which is supposed to cause global warming leading to droughts and floods across the world. Recent Paris conclave spent considerable time on the need to do more to control these emissions through self restraints and national policy orchestration. Though each country has its own compulsions to resist any compulsory limits for green gas emissions, there is a better realization that such restraints eventually will benefit their own people. How far burning of fossil fuels can be reduced which can contribute to lower emissions remains to be seen in the light of rapidly declining crude oil prices in the international market tempting countries to buy more of these fuels to propel their engines of growth and economic development. To add to the woes here comes another area of concern vis-a-vis green house gas emission which pertains to "Nitrogen Emission" that never got the attention from the people and if some experts are to be believed there is a real danger if adequate steps are not taken to control this type of emissions. Here is a take on this danger which is coming to the public domain calling for urgent action at the global level 

"You hear about carbon, but not so much about nitrogen which causes a whole host of pollution problems," said professor Mark Sutton, one of the authors of the report Nitrogen on the Table. Sutton and his co-authors calculated that between 6.5 million and 8 million tonnes of nitrogen is released into the environment by the European agricultural sector every year. Nitrogen is mostly released as ammonia and nitrous oxide in the air and nitrate in ground and surface water. Too high levels of ammonia in the air cause health problems, while nitrous oxide is a powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas. An important question is where to put the effort to reduce nitrogen emissions. "There are two basic ways to reduce nitrogen emissions from European agriculture," said Potocnik, who was environment commissioner under Jose Manuel Barroso until 2014. The Slovenian is now co-chair of a UN body on international resources. The first way is to reduce emissions per unit of product, i.e. per piece of meat, dairy product, or egg. The second one is to reduce consumption. "The first one is the one which we are normally focussing on in our policy life. Why? It's easier. It's not contagious," noted Potocnik. "The second one is problematic, because it's addressing people's dietary choices and has major consequences also on the structure of European agriculture. That's why nobody is pretty much from the policy trying to address it," he added. But dietary changes would have great effects."

The report above mainly talks about the Nitrogen emission in Europe where fertilizer intensive agriculture is practiced across the continent. If Europe and the US have become leading producers of food grains and other food materials including meat from sources like beef, chicken and pork, thanks are largely due to the use of nitrogenous fertilizers liberally. The knowledge that these fertilizers can cause emission of Ammonia and Nitrous Oxide, considered serious pollution should make those countries with vibrant agriculture and livestock industry more sensitive to the dangers they are causing to the world and the impact that can threaten the very existence of this planet. What about the countries in the developing world? They are also equally vulnerable to the dangers because the so called "green revolution" that made some of them self reliant in food production is founded on application of nitrogenous and other chemical fertilizers, most of them heavily subsidized by the governments. Scarcity of data regarding the severity of nitrogen emission in these countries does not mean that such emissions are not serious. It is in this context organic foods become more relevant because of significantly lesser emission due to non-use of chemical fertilizers. It is another matter whether natural manures used in traditional cultivation can also be equally guilty of such emissions. Probably cutting down on meat and dairy products as is being proposed by some environmental activists may makes sense as raising animals do contribute enormously to the overall pollution problem but it cannot be a solution as agriculture also is a culprit. But cutting down meat and animal derived foods can make a significant impact as staple food grains consumption cannot be tinkered with though avoiding over consumption can make some difference. All said nitrogen emission control is not that easy as compared to controlling emissions of carbon dioxide mostly coming from non-agricultural sectors. Technological breakthroughs that can reduce nitrogen emission per unit of any food are the priority to day for agricultural scientists for a better future of this planet.         


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