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***Strictly embargoed until 0001 BST London time on Friday 25 April 2014***

Press release 2014/02 - Issued by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK

Nitrogen pollution, climate and land use: why what we eat matters

A new report quantifies for the first time how much our food choices affect pollutant nitrogen emissions, climate change and land-use across Europe.

The executive summary of the European Nitrogen Assessment Special Report on Nitrogen and Food, 'Nitrogen on the Table', was released today (Friday 25 April 2014). The Special report provides an assessment of what would happen if Europe were to decrease its consumption of meat and dairy products. It shows how much cutting down on meat and dairy in our diets would reduce nitrogen air and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, while freeing up large areas of farmland for other purposes such as food export or bioenergy. It also considers the health benefits of reduced meat consumption. The full report is published next month.

Report lead author Henk Westhoek, program manager for Agriculture and Food at PBL (the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) said, “The report shows that the nitrogen footprint of meat and dairy is considerably higher than that from plant-based products. If all people within the EU would halve their meat and dairy consumption, this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 25 to 40%, and nitrogen emissions by 40%.  The EU could become a major exporter of food products, instead of a major importer of for example soy beans.”

The work has been conducted by the 'Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen' of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). In 2011 the Task Force produced the first 'European Nitrogen Assessment' (ENA) which showed that better nitrogen management will help reduce air, water and soil pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, simultaneously reducing threats to human health, biodiversity and food security.

Co-author of the report Prof Mark Sutton, an Environmental Physicist at the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said, "Human's use of nitrogen is a major societal challenge that links environment, food security, and human health. There are many ways in which society could improve the way it uses nitrogen, and this includes actions by farmers and by ourselves. Our new study shows that adopting a demitarian* diet across Europe would reduce nitrogen pollution levels by about 40%, which is similar to what could be achieved by adopting low-emission farming practices.”

The UNECE Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen is tasked with providing policy makers in the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution with scientific evidence to support international decision making on environmental policies, especially as these link air pollution with water, soil, climate and biodiversity.

Professor Sutton said, “As the EU now starts to renegotiate the National Emissions Ceilings Directive, it is an open question to what extent countries will emphasize technical measures or such behavioural changes. One of the major barriers to action is the international trade in food commodities. The result is that countries fear that tackling nitrogen pollution will reduce their international competitiveness. The present study shows that there is huge power for pollution control in simply reducing our meat and dairy consumption."

Dr Alessandra Di Marco, a co-author of the study and researcher at the Air Pollution Unit of the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, has been involved in a number of food pilot projects in Italian schools. She said, “The school food pilot projects in Italy have shown added value environmental benefits and health benefits associated with ‘smart food’. This is a new concept in Italian schools where children are informed about health principle of nutrition, but it still misses the connection with environmental co-benefits of the healthy choice. Increasing the awareness of dietary choice in children is the starting point for cleaning the environment.”

Notes for Editors

For more information please contact the CEH Press Office.

Henk Westhoek and colleagues have already prepared a scientific paper giving some details of the analysis being published in the full report in May. Paper reference: Westhoek, H., et al., Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake. Global Environ. Change (2014) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.02.004. A copy of the paper can be obtained from Barnaby Smith.

*The term ‘demitarian’ refers to half the normal consumption of meat (and by extension other animal products) compared with the normal local situation in developed countries.  The term was introduced by Prof. Sutton in 2009 as part of the “Barsac Declaration on Environmental Sustainability and the Demitarian Diet”. This document represents a commitment by scientists to reduce the environmental footprint of their own conferences. See http://www.nine-esf.org/barsac-declaration

Funding for the work: The report authors acknowledge financial support through the UNECE Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen, including from the Netherlands Ministry (WOT-04-008-010) and the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, together with support from the European Commission for the NitroEurope IP, ECLAIRE, Legume Futures and AnimalChange projects.  The conclusions are those of the authors and do not imply any particular position on behalf of the funding bodies.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is the UK's Centre of Excellence for integrated research in the land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. CEH is part of the Natural Environment Research Council, employs more than 450 people at four major sites in England, Scotland and Wales, hosts over 150 PhD students, and has an overall budget of about £35m. CEH tackles complex environmental challenges to deliver practicable solutions so that future generations can benefit from a rich and healthy environment. www.ceh.ac.uk You can follow the latest developments in CEH research via CEHScienceNews on Twitter and our RSS news feed

NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It coordinates some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, food security, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more. NERC receives around £300m a year from the government's science budget, which it uses to fund research and training in universities and its own research centres. www.nerc.ac.uk