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.”

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher

£36000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced SEN Teacher n...

Volunteer Mentor for people who have offended

This is an unpaid volunteer role. : Belong: We are looking for volunteers who ...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced TA's urgently...

Business StudiesTeacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Supply Business Studies Teacher...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?