Saturday, December 12, 2009

Enough about Carbon. What about Nitrogen?

On my first day in Copenhagen, I attended a side event entitled, "Science, society, and adaptation" presented by the International Council for Science's (ICSU) Earth System Science Partnership. There were four panelists who spoke about a variety of topics (e.g., carbon, nitrogen, food security) all meant to focus on how to address the problems through adaptation.

Given my interest in food sustainability, I found Dr. Sybil Seitzinger's talk on nitrogen particularly interesting. She is involved with an effort called the International Nitrogen Initiative, "which is dedicated to optimizing the use of nitrogen in food production, while minimizing the negative effects of nitrogen on human health and the environment as a result of food and energy production".

So much of the public dialogue about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions focuses on carbon, but the use of and emission of nitrogen has risen at a steadily sharp rate since the 1950s when artificial fertilizers (made from nitrogen) were adopted for mainstream use in agriculture. (Note: For a "consumer friendly" explanation of the history and impact of nitrogen based fertilizers, I recommend Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemmma" or "In Defense of Food".)

Dr. Seitzinger only briefly touched upon the impact of nitrogen on our climate and health, but she made some interesting arguments for both sides of the coin. On the one hand, artificial fertilizers are responsible for the production of much larger quantities of food than previous feasible (nitrogen = good). However, the nations most opressed by food scarcity have the lowest acess to / emissions of nitrogen (nitrogen not helping those who really need it).

Her suggestion for a path forward was to figure out a way to reduce nitrogen use for fertilizers while balancing out the use across both industrialized and developing nations. I was somewhat disappointed by this suggestion, especially given the "adaptation" theme of the session. My hope is that industrialized nations can decrease their nitrogen use in agriculture by returning to my localized, sustainable food networks and concurrently developing nations can be empowered to utilize some of these same techniques. The "adaptation" comes by making sure that agriculture is centered on communities' changing climates and adapts to those climates so that heavy amounts of fertilizers aren't needed.

There seem to be a number of interesting agriculture talks taking place tomorrow at the klimaforum09. I look forward to some additional discussions about these topics!

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