Food production can lead to pollution due to the use of nitrogen in the form of synthetic fertilisers, and manure such as animal excreta. In Europe, up to 80 per cent of the nitrogen used during agricultural activities can leak into the environment if excessive amounts of the nutrient are used inefficiently. Nitrogen can leak in the form of ammonia and nitrogen oxides, which are harmful air pollutants, nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas, and nitrates, which affect water quality. This will impact biodiversity, climate and health. However, a new report for the United Nations has provided a recipe to halve pollution from food production through balanced changes to farm and food chain management, and diets.
The report is called Appetite for Change.
The fact that there are inefficiencies in farms, retail and wastewater practices implies that the efficiency of the food system in Europe is just 18 per cent. In order to halve the overall losses of nitrogen to the air, water and soils, it is important to halve average European meat and dairy consumption, and replace these products with plant-based diets; cut food waste by retailers and consumers to reduce the amount that needs to be produced; provide financial incentives for foods that have a low impact on the environment; mobilise farmers, industry, government and consumers to work together to reduce nitrogen losses throughout the food system; ensure more efficient fertiliser application and storage of manure; improve wastewater management to capture nitrogen from sewage to reduce emissions and enable nutrients to be used on fields; and implement a combination of policies addressing food production and consumption to better support a transition towards sustainable systems, among other ‘ingredients’, the report said.
The quantity of proteins consumed by the average person in Europe exceeds the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO). A balanced diet that has less meat and dairy will not only improve nutrition and make people healthier, but will also reduce food pollution from nitrogen.
In a statement released by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Professor Mark Sutton, one of the editors of the report, said action does not begin and end at the farm gate, but requires a holistic approach involving not only farmers but policymakers, retailers, water companies and individuals. He also said the analysis found that actions such as halving meat and dairy consumption scored the highest among ways to halve nitrogen by 2030.
Not only is growing vegetables more efficient than livestock agriculture, but also reduces emissions. Less land and fertilisers are required.
About 40 per cent of farmland in Europe produces food for livestock, and nitrogen fertiliser costs for farmers have increased in the last two years, mainly because of the war in Ukraine. This highlights the need to reduce the wasteful losses of expensive nitrogen resources.
In the statement, Dr Adrian Leip, the lead editor of the report, said the unprecedented rise of energy, fertiliser and food prices since 2021 underlines the need to address the vulnerability of the current food system, and plant-based diets need less land and fertilisers, reduce energy use, and increase the world’s resilience to the current multi-crises of food, energy and climate. He explained that freeing up land to restore habitats would help tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.
In order to write the report, the researchers investigated 144 scenarios, which include varying reductions in meat and dairy consumption, investment in wastewater treatment, and agricultural and retail practices, and analysed the benefits for the environment and health.
The scientists wrote that a balanced range of actions, including a demitarian approach, which refers to halving meat and dairy consumption; and improved farm and food chain management could achieve a 49 per cent reduction in nitrogen losses. This approach had the highest score for net societal benefit.
A plant-based diet, together with ambitious technical measures, can reduce nitrogen waste by 84 per cent. However, this scenario did not offer net societal benefit.