It’s been a fascinating few days in Colombo with the South Asia Nitrogen Hub. We’ve been learning about the perverse impact of farm subsidies on the environment, about the multiple influences on farmer decision-making, about farmers having to work off the farm to make ends meet and about the challenges of tackling an issue like nitrogen which cuts across a number of different ministries … and it’s been raining a lot. So much like being in Scotland, but much warmer and much easier to get your five a day with plenty of veg and fruit at every meal.
At the same time, the environmental and health problems caused by nitrogen misuse have much more serious consequences here. Ammonia pollution from agriculture increases PM (particulate matter) air pollution – and the average exposure in India to PM 2.5 is three times higher than the maximum in St Johns Rd Corstorphine (one of Scotland’s notorious hotspots which you can keep an eye on here PM 2.5 is estimated to be the cause of 1 million deaths a year in India and almost 30 million years of life lost. read more.
The meeting started with a huge international gathering to kick off the Colombo Declaration, with 30 governments from across the world signing up to the ambition to halve nitrogen waste by 2030.
The UK was here, and Scotland is well-placed to adopt this goal now that a nitrogen budget is built into the new climate change bill. Although we didn’t get a plug in the formal proceedings, the UN Environment Programme mentioned Scotland and Nourish’s contribution as a case study in the run-up to the event, so please have a read and share!
Nitrogen impacts almost every aspect of the SDGs, impacting not just on poverty and food production but also on climate action, health, ecosystems, gender, innovation, partnerships and the circular economy. There are huge opportunities to improve efficiency, as more than half of the nitrogen used in the world’s agriculture ends up in the air or the water rather than in the crop. Both India and China are taking action, and the indications are that fertiliser use has started to decline in both countries without reducing food production.
We are unlikely to achieve the Colombo Declaration’s ambitious targets on nitrogen waste without doing lots of different things at the same time: reducing the need for nitrogen fertiliser by shifting to a more sustainable diet, transitioning to agroecology; matching need and use on farm; recycling nitrogen from waste water; decarbonising transport, and reducing food and fabric waste across the supply chain. That means each of us has a role to play from farmer to consumer to policy maker.
Nitrogen is everywhere but invisible – without nitrogen we wouldn’t have green plants, blue skies or DNA – but we need to use this amazing element better to deliver on cleaner air, healthier ecosystems and mitigating climate change.