Scientific Updates /
Reversing the nitrogen crisis with sustainable diets report
21 April 2021
A 2021 Alpro Foundation fully referenced scientific report
With climate change now firmly on the political agenda of many countries, the Netherlands is adding another issue to its agenda: the Nitrogen crisis.
While reactive Nitrogen is naturally present at low levels and is essential to life, human activities, mainly from agricultural activities, have led to a surplus in the environment. This negatively impacts water and air quality, promotes soil degradation and contributes to climate change as well as significant loss of biodiversity.
This in-depth and fully referenced report, by two environmental experts, Professor Harry Aiking (VU University Amsterdam) and Professor Jan Willem Erisman (Leiden University), summarizes the current literature surrounding the Nitrogen crisis. They explain the impact on both the environment and human health and emphasize the role of changing dietary patterns and sustainable farming as part of the solution.
The role of agriculture in the nitrogen crisis
The biggest contributor to this surplus in reactive Nitrogen are the agricultural processes which produce the food that we eat. Large amounts of fertilizer are needed to support our current dietary habits, which are highly focused on animal-based proteins. Agricultural practices contribute to surplus reactive Nitrogen via:
Excessive use or poor management of chemical fertilizers which are needed to restore nutrients to the soil
Intensive livestock farming and mono-crop feed production systems
Burning of fossil fuels as part of agricultural processes and production of fertilizer
Food waste across the food life cycle, including production and transport losses
The role of plant-based diets and sustainable farming
There are two ways we, as individuals, can positively help to re-balance the reactive Nitrogen levels in our environment:
Via our food choices, primarily by choosing plant-based over animal-based protein
By reducing food waste, including both discarded food and over-consumption
Such a nutrition transition would not only help reduce reactive Nitrogen levels, but would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) which contribute to climate change. In addition, it would reduce the pressure on valuable natural resources, such as fresh water and land use. Last but not least, it would benefit human health!
Alongside dietary changes, we also need to implement more sustainable agricultural practices and advances in technology as well as reduce avoidable food waste across the food chain. Such solutions should be implemented mainly at the governmental level to support sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems.
It is paramount that we establish the required sense of urgency regarding the Nitrogen crisis, especially among governments worldwide, to prevent further environmental pollution and biodiversity loss.
Aiking H, Erisman JW. AF Report: Reversing the nitrogen crisis - role of plant-based diets and sustainable farming
Alpro Foundation report
Reversing the nitrogen crisis report
Expert opinion video
Interview with Professor Aiking and Professor Erisman