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Balancing More Food and Energy with Less Pollution

18 March 2013

ANALYSIS - As the global population grows to an expected 9 billion people by 2050, the need to produce more food and energy with less pollution is becoming more and more critical.

In some areas of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa, farmers struggle to find enough nutrients in the soil for crops and pasture. In other areas such as the rapidly developing areas of South and East Asia there is a problem with overuse of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous.

A new report prepared by the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management in collaboration with the International Nitrogen Initiative, Our Nutrient World, gives a global overview on nutrient management.

The message from the overview is that everyone stands to benefit from nutrients and everyone can make a contribution to promote sustainable production and use of nutrients.

"Whether we live in a part of the world with too much or too little nutrients, our daily decisions can make a difference," says Achim Steiner, (pictured), United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme, one of the main sponsors of the report.

"Without swift and collective action, the next generation will inherit a world where many millions may suffer from food insecurity caused by too few nutrients, where the nutrient pollution threats from too much will become more extreme, and where unsustainable use of nutrients will contribute even more to biodiversity loss and accelerating climate change.

"Conversely with more sustainable management of nutrients, economies can play a role in a transition to a Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

"The Global Overview develops these essential themes, to prepare societies to take the next steps."

The report shows that the sustainability of our world depends fundamentally on nutrients and in order to feed the current population of 7 billion people, humans have more than doubled global land-based cycling of nitrogen and phosphorus.

However, the report shows that the world's nitrogen and phosphorous cycles are now out of balance, causing major environmental, health and economic problems that have received far too little attention.

While insufficient access to nutrients still limits food production and contributes to land degradation in some parts of the world, finite reserves of phosphorous represent a potential risk for future global food security. Because of this there is a need to ensure their prudent use.

The reports says that unless action is taken, increases in population and consumption of energy and animal products will make the nutrient losses worse and increase pollution levels and land degradation, further threatening the quality of our water, air and soils, affecting climate and biodiversity.

The report says that a new global effort is needed to address 'The Nutrient Nexus', where reduced nutrient losses and improved nutrient use efficiency across all sectors simultaneously provide the foundation for a Greener Economy to produce more food and energy while reducing environmental pollution.

It says the new effort must cross the boundaries between economic sectors and environmental media, be underpinned by scientific and other evidence from a robust global assessment process, share best practices and address the substantial cultural and economic barriers that currently limit adoption.

The report authors call on the global community to agree which existing inter-governmental process is best suited to take the lead in improving nutrient management for the 21st century, or, indeed, whether a new policy process is needed at all.

It suggest that on option is to strengthen the mandate of the 'Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities' (GPA) to address the inter-linkages between land, air and water, in relation to the global supply of all nutrient sources and Nutrient Use Efficiency (NUE) across the full chain, considering their regional variation.

It says that Nutrient Use Efficiency represents a key indicator to assess progress towards better nutrient management. An aspirational goal for a 20 per cent relative improvement in full-chain Nutrient Use Efficiency by 2020 would lead to an annual saving of around 20 million tonnes of nitrogen ('20:20 by 2020'), and equate to an initial estimate of improvement in human health, climate and biodiversity worth around $170 billion per year.

The report says that any inter-governmental effort must be to show how improved management of nitrogen and phosphorous at different scales over the whole cycle would simultaneously make quantified contributions toward meeting existing commitments for water, air, soil, climate and biodiversity, while underpinning improved food and energy security - with net social and economic benefits. "International consensus and authorisation of the global nutrient focus is now essential, emphasising the need for a mandate to assess the scientific evidence, share best practices, and work towards inter-governmental agreements that make quantifiable steps toward the sustainable development of Our Nutrient World," the report concludes.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

Chris Harris, Editor-in-Chief

Chris Harris, Editor-in-Chief



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