Cut out meat to stop nitrogen pollution say scientists

April 11th, 2011

First they told us not to eat meat because of climate change. Now scientists are telling the public to adopt a ‘demitarian’ diet, that contains half as much meat, to stop an even more dangerous threat to the planet – nitrogen pollution.

The first study in the world to calculate the total costs of nitrogen pollution across a whole continent found that the problem is costing each person in Europe up to £650 every year because of health and environmental damage.

The main cause of the pollution is agriculture through the manure of animals and the nitrogen fertilisers spread on crops. Around half of nitrogen added to farm fields in Europe leaks into the surrounding environment rather than feeding plants. This causes algae slimes to grow in water and on trees, suffocating wildlife and disturbing delicate ecosystems.

Also nitrogen ‘smog’ released into the air by burning fossil fuels in power stations and cars cause breathing or heart problems that take six months off the life of all Europeans, as well as being a greenhouse gas.

The ground-breaking European Nitrogen Assessment by more than 200 scientists from 21 countries concludes that nitrogen pollution poses an even greater threat to humankind than carbon. The cost is greater than the benefits gained by using nitrogen fertiliser to grow food and therefore it is in the EU’s interest to take action.

Dr Mark Sutton, the UK lead author, said the best way to control the problem is through eating less meat.

He explained that most of the nitrogen used in agriculture is used to grow feed crops for animals or comes from manure.

Therefore cutting down on animal protein, would significantly reduce the amount of pollution.

“The largest challenges are to manage nitrogen better in agriculture and to moderate Europeans’ consumption of animal protein,” he said. “Amazingly, livestock consume around 85 per cent of the 14 million tonnes of nitrogen in crops harvested or imported into the EU; only 15 per cent is used to feed humans directly. European nitrogen use is therefore not primarily an issue of food security, but one of luxury consumption.”

Already celebrities like Sir Paul McCartney and Joanna Lumley have urged people to give up meat at least once a week for ‘Meat Free Mondays’. The United Nations and well known academics like Lord Stern also advocate cutting down on meat to help the environment.

Dr Sutton, from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, and the other scientists involved in the project have signed an agreement pledging to be ‘demitarians’ or eat half as much meat.

He also said people can switch to public transport and use less energy in order to cut nitrogen use.

However he ruled out a tax on nitrogen fertiliser because of the threat to food security.

Source: Cut out meat to stop nitrogen pollution say scientists – The Telegraph UK

Date: 11 April 2011