Good, bad nutrients

Good, bad nutrients

Nutrients are the lifeblood of living. For instance, a productive and healthy yield requires soil that is sufficiently nutritious. In an ideal situation the nutrients which have been exploited for growth would circulate in the ecosystem and revert back to the soil.

Unfortunately, the situation today is far from the ideal. As a result of human actions, excess amounts of nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, are disturbing the natural nutrient cycles. At present, the production of food is responsible for the largest release of nutrients. The nutrient chain has too many spillover points from which the nutrients spread into the nature, causing various negative effects on the environment.

Nitrogen supports the crop growth

The abundant use of chemical fertilizers and fossil fuels once enabled the industrialization of agriculture. Agriculture benefits from nitrogen fertilizers because they improve and enhance the amount and quality of the harvest. However, the unsustainable use of phosphorus and nitrogen together with the open-ended nutrient cycles strain the environment immoderately. For instance, the surplus of nitrogen, which the crop has not taken in, ends up in the water system causing eutrophication. Furthermore, some of the nitrogen compounds evaporate into the atmosphere, increasing the global warming effect.

Agriculture needs reactive nitrogen which is converted from the non-reactive form from the atmosphere, in order for plants to seize it. The conversion process produces 121 million tons of reactive nitrogen annually, whereas the estimated limit which the planet can still tolerate is only 35 tons.

The use of fossil fuels is the second largest source of reactive nitrogen – after agriculture, naturally.

The negative effect implies that reactive nitrogen accumulates in large amounts in the ecosystem as straining compounds.

In addition to the greenhouse gases, the combustion of fossil fuels releases toxic nitrogen compounds which in turn result in acidifying effects on soil and water ecosystems. In some regions, they also contribute to the ozone processes. Additionally, also the traffic and industry release nitrogen oxides.

Nutrient footprints – what are they?

One of the concrete goals of the NUTS project is to define the nutrient footprint for the production of food, energy, commodities and services. Nutrient footprint is a tool which will help to assess the amount of the needed nutrients for certain productions, the amount of harnessed ”virgin” nutrients and the amount of spillovers.

Particularly the development and improvement of the food production chain is essential in stabilizing the nutrient cycles. Today, the food production chain is an open-ended chain which means that nutrient run-offs occur in every stage of the chain from the primary production to the end users. Each stage of the food production chain requires also energy production and transport fuels.

Therefore, the consequent goal of the NUTS project is to refine the food production chain from an open system into a more closed and better managed one in which the harnessed nutrients return back to the cycle for recovery. In order to achieve this, new perspectives and approaches are needed as well as cooperation between different domains.

Participation of all stakeholders, including farmers, producers, retailers, consumers, and decision-makers, is needed in this work. Ultimately, the pace of change depends on all of us.