Understanding the Impacts of Nitrogen Pollution on Agriculture

Understanding the Impacts of Nitrogen Pollution on Agriculture
External Guest Writer
July 18, 2022

What Is Nitrogen Pollution?

Nitrogen is one of the essential nutrients plants need to grow. This is often found in soil and fertilizer, and plants utilize this nutrient to increase leaves and fruits. However, when there is excess nitrogen in the soil, it leads to nitrogen pollution instead, which stunts plant growth.

Nitrogen pollution is potent. Excess nitrogen is harmful to land and water bodies, where nitrogen pollution increases algal blooms, which produce neurotoxins that are harmful to livestock, kills fish, and reduces soil and water quality.

The International Nitrogen Management System (INMS)

Reactive nitrogen pollution is a growing environmental concern that led to the establishment of the INMS. The International Nitrogen Management System (INMS) aims to monitor the global nitrogen cycle to improve the understanding of the effects of nitrogen pollution in the ecosystem through environmental studies on nitrogen balance.

These studies monitor the nitrous oxide emissions, which comes from greenhouse gas emissions, as well as excess nitrogen as a result of food waste, nitrogen fertilizers, and agricultural manure.

The Sources of Nitrogen Pollution

Nitrogen gas accounts for at least 7% of greenhouse gasses. Potent greenhouse gas, in turn, is caused by various human activities like the burning of fossil fuels, and the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizer in agriculture. These increase our nitrogen footprint, and release toxic chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus into the air, land, and water.

Animal Manure and Fertilizer

Manure used in agricultural settings releases nitrogen into the soil and air as the organic matter degrades. Manure used as fertilizer in food production, as well as manure produced by livestock both contribute to climate change and global warming.

Synthetic fertilizer is another contributor of nitrogen pollution in agriculture, as nitrogen is often added in fertilizers to increase plant yield, and grow lush greens to meet the demands of human consumption. However, the excessive use of synthetic fertilizer causes the nitrogen problem, as nitrogen accumulates in the soil, and leaches into water, affecting marine life.

Fossil Fuels Combustion

The combustion of gas and fossil fuels releases nitrogen in the air, which causes air pollution that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Human activities are reliant on fossil fuels as a form of energy, using fossil fuels to power cars, machinery, and factories. These fossil fuels are devastating to the environment, and increase our carbon footprint.

Sewage Treatment Plant Discharge

The majority of sewage treatment plants around the world do not filter out reactive nitrogen from wastewater before releasing them into streams and other bodies of water. This causes water quality to degrade, and damage soil as well when water reaches land forms.

Nitrogen pollution will stunt plant growth, as seen in areas close to polluted waters where land is barren. The increase in nitrogen will also cause algal blooms, and toxic algae create neurotoxins that are harmful to plant and animal life.

Storm Runoff

Storm runoff carries nitrogen from the air to water and soil as rain falls. High amounts of nitrogen in the air contribute to acid rain and smog, which is carried away to natural resources during storm runoffs.

The Negative Effects of Nitrogen Pollution on Agriculture

Nitrogen, despite being an essential nutrient for plant health, will stunt or kill plants when in excess. Both nitrogen and phosphorus-rich soils will also prevent seeds from germinating, and disrupt the soil ecosystem by killing off beneficial bacteria and microbes in the soil.

Climate change created challenges for the agricultural industry to meet the demands for human resources as soil and water quality continue to deplete. Nitrogen and phosphorus are harmful to plant, animal and other aquatic life, which can transfer the excess nitrogen content to humans when consumed.

The effects of nitrogen pollution on agriculture weigh heavily on the ability of farmlands to produce food, fabric, and oil resources needed to keep human society thriving, and is a never-ending concern for many.

What Can You Do?

There are various ways to reduce nitrogen pollution. The key is to live a sustainable lifestyle, and reject single-use products and packaging. By forming policies, advancing sustainable technologies, and becoming proactive consumers in the nitrogen challenge, we can reduce nitrogen runoff in both rural and urban areas.

  • Reduce Food Waste: Only purchase and produce food items that will be consumed, and repurpose food scraps as compost as a natural fertilizer.
  • Reduce Energy Use in Processes: Reduce the consumption of processed food, meats, and other products that are energy-intensive to produce. Stick to fresh food that can be eaten without using additional energy to prepare.
  • Minimize the Use of Transportation Systems: Reduce transportation systems by purchasing local fare, and use public transportation whenever possible. The use of bicycles and non-gas guzzling vehicles also minimize nitrogen emissions.
  • Creating Water Aeration Channels: These channels aim to aerate the water, removing up to 95% of nitrite-oxidizing bacteria from the water. This will effectively reduce nitrogen in the water, and improve water quality.
  • Buying Local Goods: Purchasing produce locally can reduce carbon and nitrogen emissions up to 26% as it lessens the use of transportation from one area to another.
  • Choose an Organic Lifestyle: Organic produce and products are those that are cultivated and processed without the use of synthetic additives or fertilizers. Choosing to live organically will help reduce nitrogen runoffs.

The Environmental Concern

Nitrogen in moderate amounts is beneficial to plant growth, but as human activities continue to create nitrogen-rich environments, the level of ecosystem degradation is moving at a faster pace than what we can prevent. The big environmental concern lies in the ability of agriculture to continue producing resources the world needs, which is diminishing over time.