According to a new paper in this week’s Nature by a multinational team led by Xuejun Liu of the China Agricultural University in Beijing, the deposition of nitrogen in China increased by around 60 per cent between the 1980s and the 2000s. This rise is attributed to a rapid increase in human-driven nitrogen emissions from both agricultural and industrial sources. While this has had huge benefits for food and energy production, it has caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health, causing toxic algal blooms, killing fish, threatening sensitive ecosystems and contributing to climate change.

Professor Mark Sutton from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Dr Albert Bleeker from the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands provided the Nature News & Views commentary on the new paper. Professor Sutton was also interviewed for an accompanying news article. He said, "The Letter by Liu et al. highlights how very high levels of N and P fertilization in China and low nutrient use efficiency have created extreme levels of nitrogen pollution in China. Developing regions around the world are increasing their rates of fertilizer use and meat consumption, so that the situation in China will become characteristic of many places in 2050, if action is not taken.” 

The findings from China and estimates for 2050 in the new paper build on the conclusions of a new report published earlier this week which was commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). ‘Our Nutrient World’ was led by Professor Sutton and involved nearly 50 scientists from 14 countries. That study identified ten key actions for better nutrient management, proposing an aspirational goal 20:20 for 2020, where a 20% improvement in nutrient use efficiency would save 20 million tonnes of nitrogen annually, by the year 2020.

Professor Sutton concludes his Nature commentary by commenting on this proposed goal. He said, "This will require changes in industrial and agricultural practices, and a re-evaluation of the consumption patterns of Western society. But achieving all of this will require countries to get organized, and to start taking the nitrogen challenge seriously."

Additional information

Nature News & Views – Sutton, M.A. and Bleeker, A. ‘The shape of nitrogen to come

Liu et al. (2013) Enhanced nitrogen deposition over China. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature11917

Nature News – ‘Nitrogen Pollution Soars in China 

Sutton M.A. et al. (2013) Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. Global Overview of Nutrient Management. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology on behalf of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management and the International Nitrogen Initiative. 114pp. The report is available to download from International Nitrogen Initiative and Global Partnership on Nutrient Management websites.

Mark Sutton was interviewed about the Our Nutrient World report by BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (from 54 mins 30s - available until Monday February 25 2013) and BBC Radio 4 Farming Today (from beginning - available until Tuesday February 26 2013).

Mark has written a blog post about Our Nutrient World and his discussions at the United Nations Environment Programme General Assembly in Nairobi.

The Global Overview on Nutrient Management was commissioned by UNEP and conducted by the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) and the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), under the lead of the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. The commission was a direct response to the recognized success of the European Nitrogen Assessment, published in 2011, and seeks to go to the next stage to look at the global picture and the interactions between the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. A four-minute video about the issues is available on YouTube.

Related CEH links

Excessive nitrogen harms the economy and environment – first Europe-wide assessment published - 11 April 2011

Smarter use of nutrients can help protect human health and the environment - new scientific report published today - 18 February 2013




You can follow the latest developments in CEH research via Twitter and our RSS news feed.

Science areas: