Knowledge for better food systems

UNEP report: Our Nutrient World

A report commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been published , focusing on the environmental problems caused by nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrient flows and identifying the actions that could be taken to reduce excessive nutrient use.  The research was led by Mark Sutton at the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and carried out by 50 exports from 14 countries.

The report points out that while the manufacture of synthetic nitrogen and the use both of it, and of other nutrients, have had major benefits for world food and energy production, they have caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health, causing toxic algal blooms, killing fish, threatening sensitive ecosystems and contributing to climate change.

Pollution sources considered in the report include emissions from agriculture and combustion of fossil fuel. The report underlines the point that, globally, around 80% of harvested nitrogen and phosphorus is consumed by livestock rather than directly by people, thus global nutrient supply and pollution are dominated by humans’ choice to consume animal products.

The report suggests that a 20% improvement in nutrient use efficiency by 2020 would reduce the annual use of nitrogen fertilizer by 20 million tonnes. This in turn could produce a net saving worth around £110 billion (range: 30 to 260) per year. This figure takes into account implementation costs and the financial benefits from reduced nitrogen use and improvements to the environment and human health.

The report calls for an intergovernmental framework to address these issues, and proposes a road map of how such an agreement would look.  Specifically, it propose a package of ten key actions across sectors and including personal behaviour to reduce these pollution threats, and makes recommendations for shared action by governments, business and citizens.

The ten key actions are as follows:


1.    Improving nutrient use efficiency in crop production,

2.    Improving nutrient use efficiency in animal production,

3.    Increasing the fertilizer equivalence value of animal manure

Transport and Industry

4.    Low-emission combustion and energy-efficient systems, including renewable sources,

5.    Development of NOx capture and utilization technology,

Waste and Recycling

6.    Improving nutrient efficiency in fertilizer and food supply and reducing food waste,

7.    Recycling nitrogen and phosphorus from waste water systems, in cities, agriculture and industry,

Societal consumption patterns

8.    Energy and transport saving,

9.    Lowering personal consumption of animal protein among populations consuming high rates (avoiding excess and voluntary reduction),

Integration and optimization

10. Spatial and temporal optimization of nutrient flows.

The citation for the report is as follows:
Sutton M.A., Bleeker A., Howard C.M., Bekunda M., Grizzetti B., de Vries W., van Grinsven H.J.M., Abrol Y.P., Adhya T.K., Billen G.,. Davidson E.A, Datta A., Diaz R., Erisman J.W., Liu X.J., Oenema O., Palm C., Raghuram N., Reis S., Scholz R.W., Sims T., Westhoek H. & Zhang F.S., with contributions from Ayyappan S., Bouwman A.F., Bustamante M., Fowler D., Galloway J.N., Gavito M.E., Garnier J., Greenwood S., Hellums D.T., Holland M., Hoysall C., Jaramillo V.J., Klimont Z., Ometto J.P., Pathak H., Plocq Fichelet V., Powlson D., Ramakrishna K., Roy A., Sanders K., Sharma C., Singh B., Singh U., Yan X.Y. & Zhang Y. (2013) Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. Global Overview of Nutrient Management. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh on behalf of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management and the International Nitrogen Initiative.

You can download the report here: and  The press release is available here where you can also follow links to a 4 minute Youtube video presenting the report’s findings. You can read the press release here.

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