Press release 2015/01 - Issued by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK

***Issued on Sunday 12 July 2015 ***

Measures to reduce agricultural emissions could be the most cost-effective way of tackling threats to global food productivity and human health, according to a UN expert meeting.  

The experts working in support of the UNECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution met at the Milan World EXPO on 9 July, and is focussed around the themes of ‘Feeding the planet’, and ‘energy for life’.

Methane and ammonia emissions, the focus of the meeting, are major contributors to the production of dangerous levels of particulate matter and are implicated in the premature deaths of millions. Methane, an important source of ozone, as well as a powerful greenhouse gas, causes global crop losses of US$ 20 billion each year.

According to Dr. Lisa Emberson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Dr. Gina Mills of UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) ozone air pollution is decreasing food productivity of many major food crops worldwide as global ozone levels rise, and is a particular problem in Asia, where levels of this pollutant sometimes exceed 150 parts per billion – over 10 times natural levels.

Dr Markus Amann of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, explains that, approximately half of the particulate matter air pollution in Europe comes from unregulated sources. He adds that, “coordinated EU-wide measures could provide a cost-effective way of reducing the health impacts of particulates.”

Dr Amann considers measures aimed at reducing ammonia emissions from agriculture as area of untapped potential: “Simple and inexpensive measures at a few percent of Europe’s largest industrial farms would reduce ammonia emissions in 2030 by 27 % compared to 2005”, says Dr. Amann. “Measures can be as simple as covering manure storages, or injecting manure into soils, rather than spreading it.”

Prof. Mark Sutton of CEH highlighted that there are major opportunities to improve health, environment and agricultural performance at the same time: “Keeping nitrogen in the farm system can help farmers save on their fertiliser bills, while reducing air pollution, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It can make a major contribution to improving nitrogen efficiency across the world economy.”

However, he emphasised that this was not only the responsibility of farmers: “Our food choices have a huge effect. EXPO is celebrating the diversity of world food. Traditionally people only ate small amounts of meat, but many of us now consume luxury levels with huge impacts on the planet. Our research points to the need to develop a ‘new food culture’ in the developed world. One option is to focus on high quality meat raised with the best environmental standards, but to eat it less often and with smaller portion sizes.”

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Notes to editor:

1. For more information, contact the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology Press Office.

2. “In 2014 the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology launched key messages from the developing ‘Nitrogen on the Table’ report by the UNECE Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen. The full report has now been completed and will be published by CEH this Summer.

3. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) major aim is to promote pan-European economic integration. It brings together 56 countries located in the European Union, non-EU Western and Eastern Europe, South-East Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and North America. All these countries dialogue and cooperate under the aegis of UNECE on economic and sectoral issues. Over 70 international professional organizations and other non-governmental organizations take part in UNECE activities.

4. The Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution was the first international legally binding instrument to deal with problems of air pollution on a broad regional basis. Signed in 1979 the Convention is one of the central means for protecting our environment. It has substantially contributed to the development of international environmental law and has created the essential framework for controlling and reducing the damage to human health and the environment caused by transboundary air pollution. It is a successful example of what can be achieved through intergovernmental cooperation.

5. Dr Lisa Emberson is Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute. She has over 15 years’ experience in the field of air pollution focussing on the effects of tropospheric ozone and climate change on agricultural yields, forest productivity and the functioning of terrestrial semi-natural ecosystems. For more information visit her profile page 

6. Dr Gina Mills is an applied plant physiologist concentrating on the effects of air pollution on vegetation. For more information visit her profile page 

7. Dr Mark Amann serves as the head of the Centre for Integrated Assessment Modelling (CIAM) of the European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMEP) under the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP). For more information visit his profile page 

8. Professor Mark Sutton is co-chair of the UNECE Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen (a body of the Geneva Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution), he is engaged in developing policy options for revision of ammonia measures in the Gothenburg Protocol, including examining links between nitrogen and climate. For more information visit his profile page