UN says fertiliser crisis is damaging the planet

Mass application of nutrients causes pollution in some areas while under-use hampers food production in others

A A A

The world is facing a fertiliser crisis, with far too little in some places, and far too much in others, a new report from the United Nations says today.

The mass application of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients needed for plant growth has had huge benefits for world food and energy production, but it has also 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, says the report, “Our Nutrient World”.

However, in some parts of the world, insufficient access to fertilisers remains the problem, and still hampers food production and contributes to land degradation – even while supplies of some nutrients such as phosphorus are more and more seen to be limited.

The report calls for a major global rethink in how fertilisers are used across the world, so that more food and energy can be produced while pollution is lessened rather than increased.

It suggests that the attention long given to carbon dioxide because of its role in global warming should now be given to nitrogen and phosphorus products, because their mass use is playing its own role in substantially affecting the planet. 

Since the 1960s, human use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers has increased nine-fold globally, while phosphorus use has tripled; and further substantial increase of about 40 to 50 per cent in fertiliser use are expected over the next 40 years to feed the growing world population.

“While recent scientific and social debate about the environment has focused especially on CO2 in relation to climate change, we see that this is just one aspect of a much wider and more complex set of changes occurring to the world’s biogeochemical cycles,” says the report. “In particular it becomes increasingly clear that alteration of the world’s nitrogen and phosphorus cycles represents a major emerging challenge that has received too little attention.”

A question to be decided, says the report, is what body should oversee a new attempt at globally managing fertiliser use.

Fertilising crops was originally a natural process, using plants which “fix” nitrogen from the air, such as clover and other legumes, or by the application of animal manure.  But since the development of modern agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries, natural sources of nutrients have been insufficient and croplands have needed mined or manufactured fertilisers spread upon them – in increasingly large amounts.

As their use has intensified, so have the unintended side effects, especially eutrophication – the process which occurs when excess nutrients run off into water bodies and promote excessive plant growth, especially of algae. The resulting algal blooms can be toxic to fish and other water life and even to people, and they are occurring across the world in rivers, lakes and the sea. The large amounts of nitrogen being pumped into the environment are also contributing to air pollution and to global warming, as some oxides of nitrogen are greenhouse gases.

Phosphorus us mined from phosphate rock deposits, which occur in only a few countries; nitrogen fertilisers are produced by the famous Haber-Bosch process, developed in the early 20th century and now responsible for 500m tonnes of fertiliser a year.

Even, so, says the report, in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia there are still wide regions with not enough access to nutrients.

The lead author of the report is Professor Mark Sutton from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. He said: “Our analysis shows that by improving the management of the flow of nutrients we can help protect the environment, climate and human health, while addressing food and energy security concerns.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Audit Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Graduate Opportunities are available at a lead...

Tradewind Recruitment: Experienced Cover Supervisor

£12000 - £14400 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Experienced Cover Supervisor...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Account Manager

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are proud to be on...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Engineer with SQL skills

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project