Vice-Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU
What is the role of nitrogen in agriculture?
Nitrogen is a building block of life. It is central to the chemical structure of chlorophyll, which fuels photosynthesis. Without nitrogen there is nothing. As a result of our ability to harness nitrogen via the Haber-Bosch process we have increased food production enormously to support billions more people without an equivalent increase in the amount of land under cultivation. However, the oversupply of fertilizer and manure to agricultural land has also led to large amounts of excess nitrogen being lost to the environment, making nitrogen pollution one of the most important environmental issues of our time. Indeed, humanity’s multifaceted relationship with nitrogen – from essential resource to ecosystem threat – reflects the central challenge of sustainable development: improving human wellbeing on a warming and more crowded planet while minimizing the related environmental impacts.
What are the key objectives of the int. nitrogen initiative, with a particular focus on the INI policy agenda?
The three central objectives of INI are:
Raise awareness of the threat of too much and too little nitrogen among national and international policymakers, civil society, business and academia.
Foster a multi-disciplinary nitrogen research community that produces policy-relevant and innovative work and engages with multiple non-academic stakeholders.
Facilitate dialogue between non-academic stakeholders on policies to improve nitrogen management by providing a forum and scientific advice.
With regards to the policy agenda, INI’s International Nitrogen Management System (INMS) project has become the main science support body on nitrogen for the United Nations Environment Assembly in the wake of their Sustainable Nitrogen Management Resolution, passed in March 2019. Coupled with the Colombo Declaration, which aspires to halve nitrogen waste by 2030, the main focus of the INI policy agenda is to integrate nitrogen into a number of environmental policy discussions, from the Sustainable Development Goals to the stratospheric ozone layer. It does this via its own conferences (the 8th Global Nitrogen Conference will take place next year in Berlin, May 3-7) and organizing side-events and outreach at others.
What is the role of policies and incentives in promoting enhanced nitrogen use efficiency in agriculture and across the whole economy?
Policies and incentives can play a crucial role in promoting enhanced nitrogen use efficiency. However, the dominant approach focused on changing farmer behavior is failing because of challenges in monitoring and enforcement, as well as deeper economic and cultural factors that motivate farmer nitrogen management decisions. We need to get more creative and explore options beyond the farmer - shifting the regulatory burden to other actors in the agri-chain like the fertilizer industry and multinational retailers who can influence farmer nitrogen management decisions.
In short, transform an intractable non-point source problem into a series of more manageable point source approache. For example, imposing new design standards on fertilizers produced by the fertilizer industry would give farmers little choice but to use more environmental efficient fertilizer products. And imposing stricter treatment standards on wastewater companies to increase the availability of recycled wastewater as a nutrient input would encourage farmers to seriously consider it as a nutrient source.
Do you think a consensus can be reached among different stakeholders on what constitute the most effective, and pragmatic plant nutrition policies and incentives?
Yes I do. There are real opportunities for win-win-win scenarios where farmer welfare increases because they’re using nitrogen more efficiently (leading to either decreased nitrogen costs or yield increases - or both); fertilizer companies profit because there is increased demand for patent-protected enhanced efficiency fertilizers and other products and services; and the environment benefits because there is less nitrogen loss. A clear first step needs to be for policymakers to better understand how and why farmers make the decisions they do, who they listen to, where they get their information etc. Only then can we start developing policies that can actually be effective in changing farmer behavior, and pragmatic in targeting in a smaller number of actors that are easier to regulate.