South, East Asia should be priority target for next nitrogen pollution assessment
13 April 2011
South and East Asia should be the next priority target for a full nitrogen pollution assessment, a leading academic in the field said yesterday.
Professor James Galloway of the University of Virginia gave a plenary lecture at the Nitrogen and Global Change Conference in Edinburgh this week, where the European Nitrogen Assessment was formally launched.
After the lecture he told the RSC that "the amount of nitrogen pollution into Europe and North America has been relatively stable, and is even decreasing, owing to new restrictions and processes.
"In South and East Asia the population is increasing rapidly, as is per-capita resource use. For example, meat is becoming a more important aspect of their diet and this is a major part of the nitrogen cycle.
"Because of this, it's even more necessary to do the assessment for these areas than for Western regions."
Nitrogen pollution occurs because man-made products are 'fixed' with extra nitrogen products like its oxides and ammonia.
Nitrogen oxides are also a by-product of petrol- or diesel-powered car engines. Nitrogen gas itself is harmless and makes up 78% of the air we breathe.
The European Nitrogen Assessment estimated the cost to the EU of nitrogen pollution to be "up to £280bn a year."
Galloway is positive about the Assessment, and the potential for further assessments in other areas.
"The Assessment is the first globally in this amount of detail in one region - a major advance. It provides a pathway for other regions - including my home region of North America - to conduct similar full nitrogen assessments.
"What's amazing about it is that not only were the traditional scientists able to get together to find a common agenda for an assessment, but also they were able to include economists, policymakers and social scientists to come together to talk about the issues.
"They've done a fantastic job of developing communication strategies for the public, and I'm actually pretty envious, and very impressed with what they've done."
The assessments so far have been done in nitrogen-rich regions. Other regions, like Africa, actually suffer from a shortage of nitrogen.
"Just as society has to focus on how you manage regions with excess nitrogen, you need to look at how to manage nitrogen-poor regions and deal with the associated problems," says Galloway.
Although the fertiliser industry is in part responsible for the increase in nitrogen pollution, it is working hard to mitigate its effects and reduce future emissions, while still being able to provide a critical commodity for food production.
Galloway highlights how chemical engineers are developing mechanisms that decrease nitrogen oxide emissions from engines, and improved application and timings of new fertilisers can increase the nitrogen efficiency in the plant.
"Also work is going into increasing the nitrogen uptake efficiency of animals - in other words making sure that the amino acids in the grain are incorporated in the part of animals that people actually eat, rather than being excreted out the back end!"
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