Joining forces: The role of the natural and social sciences in addressing the Global Nitrogen Problem

Paper: Kanter DR, Del Grosso S, Scheer C, Pelster DE, Galloway JN. Why future nitrogen research needs the social sciences. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 2020;47:54-60.

Featured image: Farm field day, Feral Arts

A wealth of scientific knowledge exists on the role of nitrogen in the natural and agricultural world, with research dating back over a century. Nitrogen sustains life and has enabled modern food production to keep up with the demands of the growing human population. However, we have reached a critical state where the use of synthetic nitrogen needs to be regulated due to the multitude of environmental impacts. The problem is that the effect nitrogen has on the planet is rarely discussed outside of scientific circles. With the recent development of international campaigns to address the global nitrogen problem, it’s time to put nitrogen research into practice with the help of social science.

The Global Nitrogen Problem

For humanity, nitrogen is the foundation of food security and so our very existence depends on it. Without fertilizer, food simply cannot be grown at the intensity that is required to meet the growing population demand. However, problems surrounding the use and misuse of nitrogen fertilizer, is ongoing in many parts of the world, mainly due to the vast quantities of wasted nitrogen from excess fertilizer use and unconsumed food (one quarter of all food produced is wasted).

The global distribution of nitrogen fertilizer use (2011). Developed countries use disproportionately more nitrogen than developing countries, highlighting the disparity in the use of nitrogen as a resource. Source: The Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC).

A well-known consequence of agriculture and human waste systems is environmental nitrogen pollution in downstream waters, which causes poor water quality, toxic algal blooms, fish loss, and indirect emissions. This type of problem requires a multidirectional societal change, where solutions address the political, cultural, and economic networks that shape farmer decisions.

These nitrogen environmental and societal impacts cannot be ignored anymore, so nitrogen management is on track to become a major global policy issue. In some countries, nitrogen assessments have been developed, yet the authors show that only a limited number of social science aspects are considered. In 2019, the UN launched a campaign, UN Global Campaign on Sustainable Nitrogen Management, realising that there was a need to address the divide between scientific knowledge of the nitrogen problem and policy makers. The ambitious goal is to halve national-level nitrogen waste by 2030.

A UN initiative, the Colombo Declaration, wants to halve nitrogen waste by 2030. An on-farm animal waste recycling system such as this helps to keep excess nitrogen out of the environment. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Coordinating a cohesive sustainable management strategy for the benefit of the environment and food security remains an elusive goal. What is it going to take to put knowledge into practice? In a new paper, Kanter et al. consider the crucial role of social science (the study of relationships between people and the greater community) in solving the global nitrogen imbalance. They outline ways in which the social sciences can help solve environmental issues and the specific type of research questions they can tackle in the nitrogen problem. 

Why is social science so important in addressing the nitrogen problem?

Firstly, the authors highlight that a sustainable nitrogen policy will impact land emissions of greenhouse gases, water quality, biodiversity, food security, human health, and economies. The fact that the use of nitrogen transcends across multiple boundaries means that knowledge from the natural sciences (the study of the natural world) simply cannot address all management level problems.

Bridging the link between the natural and social sciences provides an opportunity to knock down some of the barriers to implementing sustainable nitrogen management. For example, Governments are a key player in regulating the sustainable use of nitrogen, yet nitrogen policies across many countries show a distinct lack in addressing nitrogen pollution. Instead, some favour regulations incentivising nitrogen use (Kanter et al., 2020).

Many stakeholders are involved in nitrogen policy development, including fertilizer companies, farmer cooperatives, NGOs, the local and national government, and some have a more powerful influence over decisions. Social science can help by directly studying this complex network of relationships and knowledge exchange during policy development, and identify where power imbalances may lie.

The social sciences’ can also help give a different perspective to nitrogen pollution that may be more relatable to non-scientists. As an example, social science can assess the consequences of environmental nitrogen pollution to the community, such as the economic damage to local fisheries or impacts on human health and wellbeing when exposed to poor water quality. 

On the flip side, different groups and individuals likely already have their own perspective of what nitrogen management looks like. Social science can examine the influence of media and other knowledge sharing platforms to find out what makes science communication effective.This knowledge can then be used to increase awareness of the nitrogen problem through evidence-based knowledge.

Now we have your attention, there is so much that can be done

One of the first steps needed to facilitate actions towards the nitrogen problem is developing collaborations between natural and social scientists. At the institutional level there exists ideological barriers between the two disciplines that prevents knowledge sharing and effective collaborations. Universities can help by supporting researchers to collaborate across schools, and offering research programs that involve both the natural and social sciences. 

External funding bodies need to start prioritizing social science research for research exploring environmental issues, as the natural sciences’ tend to receive proportionately more funding in the field of nitrogen research. Finally, within the nitrogen science community, international conferences must create a space for social science at these events in their special sessions and keynote speeches. This will help facilitate networking between natural and social scientists who may otherwise never cross paths.

There are a range of environmental actions, backed up by decades of scientific research, that can be taken to address the nitrogen problem. At the farm level, actions that can be taken include improving the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers, timing application with plant nitrogen needs, and use of organic fertilizers to help the recycling of nitrogen from animal waste. In some places, financial incentives are offered to farmers to improve water quality, such as the Great Barrier Reef credit scheme in Australia.  

Chicken litter on wheat. Recycling animal manure onto crops reduces the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Source SoilScience

Improvements in nitrogen management at the source will make a significant impact on nitrogen pollution, yet this can be further mitigated through the restoration or creation of wetlands at agricultural runoff points. These vegetated waters can sponge up nitrogen and offer additional environmental benefits such as biodiversity and carbon storage

Finally, society can reduce the demand and problem of excess nitrogen by changing their diets to consume less meat and dairy, and by simply wasting less food. All these solutions require a behaviour change, which begins with effective communication of knowledge, incentivised support, and educational programs.

If humanity continues to use nitrogen as a resource, a holistic understanding of the global nitrogen problem is the only way towards a sustainable future.

Other References

David R. Kanter, Olivia Chodos, Olivia Nordland, Mallory Rutigliano, Wilfried Winiwarter. Gaps and opportunities in nitrogen pollution policies around the world. Nature Sustainability, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41893-020-0577-7

Thompson, E. (2019), Solving the global nitrogen imbalance, Eos, 100, Published on 05 September 2019.

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Jackie Webb

I’m an environmental scientist specializing in issues relating to water quality of aquatic systems in agricultural landscapes. My interests resides in ecosystem biogeochemistry, with a focus on hydrological monitoring, carbon and greenhouse gas accounting, and development of quantitative models to solve environmental issues. I gained my PhD from Southern Cross University in Australia, where I studied terrestrial and aquatic carbon cycling in agricultural floodplains. I am particularly interested in the broader ecological importance of artificial waters that play a critical role in water resources for agricultural and urban areas. My postdoctoral research involved working on greenhouse gas and carbon accounting in agricultural dams. I'm currently working as a Research Fellow at Deakin University, in rural NSW (Australia). Developing new collaborations and pursuing underrepresented ecosystems/research topics is something I value the most in my work. When I'm not doing science I can be found enjoying yoga, trail running, swimming, barre, reading, and in the kitchen fermented things! Twitter: @JackieRWebb

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