Food, it appears, can be dangerous stuff. It's not so much the eating that is the problem, it's in the production that the real dangers lie. A new study by 200 European experts from 21 countries says reactive nitrogen contributes to air pollution, fuels climate change and most alarmingly is estimated to shorten the life of the average resident by six months. Nitrogen is the most common element in the atmosphere and in itself is harmless. It is a reactive form of the gas nitrogen oxide (NOx) that causes health problems and this mainly produced by human activity, with farming being a major factor.
The report accepts that Europe needs nitrogen fertilisers for its own food security but blames many farmers for applying fertiliser carelessly to crops, so that excess nitrogen runs off to pollute water supplies. Run-off from animal manure also fouls watercourses, and nitrous oxides - a generic term covering various nitrogen pollutants including NOx - released from uncovered dung heaps pollutes the air. Agriculture produces 70% of the nitrous oxide emissions in Europe, with livestock farming being one of the biggest causes of nitrogen pollution, the study says. New rules reducing nitrogen emissions from farms are introduced next year, but there are questions over whether these will be strict enough or properly enforced. The report says one course of action is simply more careful application of fertilisers. It will benefit farmers by saving money, benefit the climate by avoiding the energy used to create the fertiliser and benefit people by lowering pollution.
Lead editor, Dr Mark Sutton from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology near Edinburgh, pointed to meat production as a major issue. He told reporters that 80% of the nitrogen in crops feeds livestock, not people. "It's much more efficient to obtain protein by eating plants rather than animals," he said. "If we want to help the problem we can all do something by eating less meat. Eating meat is the dominant driver of the nitrogen cycle in Europe.
People in many areas of the continent suffer from various aspects of nitrogen-related air pollution These include small particulates that get sucked deep into the lungs, and ground-level ozone - a strongly irritant gas formed by the action of sunlight on reactive nitrogen. Dr Sutton believes the first step is to take a new look at the laws that have already been implemented. He continued: "This report is the first time anyone has brought together the whole suite of environmental and human health issues from nitrogen on a Continental scale. We believe the big challenge is to link existing policy areas and make them work together." The reports authors note that many industries have typically resisted controls on nitrogen, but that the health and environmental benefits of reducing its emissions far outweigh the costs. With an extra six months of life at stake, it would appear to be hard to argue.