Nitrogen footprint warning from European agency

Press Association, The Guardian
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)…
(10 April 2011)

From the summary for policy makers:
Why nitrogen? Concerns and the need for new solutions

1. Nitrogen is an abundant element on earth, making up nearly 80% of the earth’s atmosphere. However, as atmospheric di-nitrogen (N2), it is unreactive and cannot be assimilated by most organisms. By contrast there are many reactive nitrogen (Nr) forms that are essential for life, but are naturally in very short supply. These include ammonia, nitrates, amino acids, proteins and many other forms. Until the mid-nineteenth century, limited availability of these Nr compounds in Europe severely constrained both agricultural and industrial productivity.

2. With increasing population in the late nineteenth century, rates of biological nitrogen fixation were not sufficient for crop needs and Europe became increasingly dependent on limited sources of mined Nr (guano, saltpetre, coal). At the start of the twentieth century, several industrial processes were developed to fix N2 into Nr, the most successful being the Haber–Bosch process to produce ammonia (NH3).

3. Since the 1950s, Nr production has greatly increased, representing perhaps the greatest single experiment in global geoengineering. Europe’s fertilizer needs have been met, as well as its military and industrial needs for Nr. In addition, high temperature combustion processes have substantially increased the formation and release of nitrogen oxides (NOx) . While the Nr shortage of the past has been solved, Europe has stored up a nitrogen inheritance of unexpected environmental effects.

4. Europe remains a major source region for Nr production, with many of the environmental impacts being clearly visible and well studied. There is a wealth of evidence on sources, fate and impacts of Nr. However, the complexity and extent of the interactions mean that scientific understanding has become scattered and focused on individual sectors. A parallel fragmentation can be seen in environmental policies related to nitrogen, which are typically separated by media (air, land, water, etc.), by issue (climate, biodiversity, waste etc) and by Nr form.

5. While this specialization has advanced understanding, European science and policies related to nitrogen have to a significant degree lost sight of the bigger picture. The occurrence of Nr in many different Nr forms and media, means that each component should not be considered in isolation. A more comprehensive understanding of the nitrogen cycle is therefore needed to minimize the adverse effects of Nr in the environment, while optimizing food production and energy use.

All the chapters for the report can be downloaded from this link.

Soil Erosion Far Worse Than Reported In American Farmlands, According To New EWG Report (VIDEO)

Joanna Zelman, Huffington Post
If the American classic song is right and “this land was made for you and me,” then why are we paying to have it destroyed? This is the question presented in the video for the new Environmental Working Group (EWG) report, “Losing Ground.”

EWG, working with Iowa State University, has found that erosion in Iowa is much worse than previously reported. In some regions, soil loss was found to be 12 times greater than the stated average, as storms stripped up to 64 tons of soil per acre of land.

The organization blames irresponsible farming practices for putting America’s land and water at risk. As the video says, pesticides, fertilizers, and manure run into water, which “renders our water undrinkable, our beaches unfit to swim in, and has created an area in the Gulf so contaminated that aquatic life has to flee or die.”…
(12 April 2011)

From the executive summary:
Across wide swaths of Iowa and other Corn Belt states, the rich, dark soil that made this region the nation’s breadbasket is being swept away at rates many times higher than official estimates.

That is the disturbing picture revealed by scientists tracking soil erosion in Iowa after every storm that hits the state and producing an unprecedented degree of precision in soil erosion estimates. The Environmental Working Group corroborated the scientists’ findings with aerial surveys that produced striking visual evidence of the damage.

In April 2010, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released data estimating the rate of soil erosion on agricultural land in the United States. On the surface, the data from the 2007 National Resources Inventory (NRI) were reassuring. Erosion in Iowa averaged 5.2 tons per acre per year, only slightly higher than the allegedly “sustainable” rate of five tons per acre per year for most Iowa soils — the amount that can supposedly be lost each year without reducing agricultural productivity. Across the entire Corn Belt, erosion averaged only 3.9 tons per acre per year, according to the NRCS data.

There is compelling evidence, however, that soil erosion and runoff from cropland is far worse than these estimates suggest. Indeed, it appears that the nation is losing ground in the decades-old fight to gain control over this most fundamental and damaging environmental problem in agriculture.

In some places in Iowa, recent storms have triggered soil losses that were 12 times greater than the federal government’s average for the state, stripping up to 64 tons of soil per acre from the land, according to researchers using the new techniques. In contrast to the reassuring statewide averages, the researchers’ data indicate that farmland in 440 Iowa townships encompassing more than 10 million acres eroded faster in 2007 than the “sustainable” rate. In 220 townships totaling 6 million acres, the rate of soil loss was twice the “sustainable” level…

Biofuels targets are ‘unethical’, says Nuffield report

Roger Harrabin
EU biofuels targets are unethical, according to a report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Its authors recommend the targets should be lifted temporarily until new safeguards are put in place for biofuels grown in Europe or imported.

But they stop short of calling for a complete halt to biofuels, which some environmentalists want.

And they hold out the hope that new technologies may be able to develop biofuels from cellulose.

Crucially, they hope this could be done in a way that does not damage the environment or compete with food crops.

However, they acknowledge that progress towards these new biofuels is too slow, and that the next-generation fuels available are too expensive.

…Based on what it says is a set of ethical values which will be widely shared, the report says biofuels should:

  • not be at the expense of human rights;
  • be environmentally sustainable;
  • contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gases (some currently increase greenhouse gases);
  • adhere to fair trade principles;
  • have costs and benefits that can be distributed in an equitable way.

(13 April 2011)
The report is available here.

Flax returns to the Willamette Valley in fertile land that once grew grass seed

Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian
CORVALLIS — The bottom had fallen out by the time Clint Lindsey returned to the family grass-seed business south of town. The recession crimped the demand for seeding lawns, parks and golf courses. The state’s accomplished farmers, who lead the nation in grass-seed production, found themselves sitting on a two-year supply of seed with a short line of buyers.

Lindsey left an audio engineering career in 2009 to return to farming with his father, Mike Robinson, and to start a family. They cultivated about 1,200 acres at the time, and nearly 90 percent of it was planted in grass seed that nobody wanted.

“We need to diversify and we’ve got to get out of grass seed,” Lindsey remembers thinking. “What are our options?”

The solution he and partners are pursuing may become a model as Oregon farmers adapt and hang on in turbulent times.

This is a changing state that romanticizes its farms but doesn’t understand its farmers. Two-thirds of its farmers and ranchers are older than 55. Ownership of 9 million acres, more than half the state’s farmland, is projected to change hands in the next decade. The next generation has to do more than master the multiple skills farming requires: They’ll be hard-pressed to fend off development pressure while connecting with an urban population intensely, sometimes intrusively, interested in what they’re doing.

And they have to make a living, too.

…Lindsey and his father decoupled the farm from the international commodities market. With their partners, they plan to install a small grain mill. From now on, they intend to sell grain, seed and flour to bakeries, restaurants and specialty stores within 150 miles.

It is less a revolution than a throwback. They are at the forefront of restoring an infrastructure that grows, processes, markets and consumes food locally.
(6 April 2011)
Suggested by EB contributor Jason Bradford. -BA