Farm News: Ag's Ammonia Emissions Rose 78% Over Last 40 Years

March 31, 2022

According to a report released this week by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ammonia emissions around the world rose 78% between 1980 and 2018. Forty years may sound like a reasonable duration for changes to occur in our environment, but climate scientists tell us this statistic is distressing and, at its worst, a serious prognosis of our atmospheric future. Many experts believe agricultural intensification and lack of regulations are most heavily to blame for this environmental disaster.

Let’s start small. Ammonia causes nitrogen deposition, which is a complicated way of saying that the presence of ammonia can lead to an excessive amount of nitrogen in the biosphere. In effect, this tends to result in reduced drinking water quality, biodiversity loss, and disruptions nutrient cycling. It can also contribute to soil acidification and dead zones in waterways.

The report reflected mostly consistent offenders, with agriculture producing countries assuming similar blame for emissionsall except for western Europe, that is. In the same 40 year period, ammonia emissions in western Europe saw a pattern of persistent decline. If their emission data is any indication of what is within reach for our global community, it becomes clear that we, like them, have the capacity to not only limit emission growth, but to transform into a trend of declination.

Ammonia emissions from crops, which are mostly propelled by the use and overuse of toxic fertilizers, rose even more than general ammonia trends. Alarmingly, ammonia emitted from crop shares increased by 128% between 1980 and 2018. Somewhat unsurprisingly, too, livestock emissions (which can be traced mostly to manure) underwent a rise of 45% during this same period. According to the report, fertilizer applied to wheat, rice, and other starchy crops made up the largest portion of crop-related ammonia emissions (68%).

More than ever, growers are using synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to help encourage quick growth and competitive size. Fertilizer use has tripled in the last 40 years, yet food production has only doubled in the same amount of time, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). What this means for our global food community, in turn, is that the amount of nitrogen absorbable by crops is falling globally, in some places drastically. For instance, in China, nitrogen use efficiency plummeted from 60% to 25% between 1961 and 2010.

At present, the United States stands alongside China and India in terms of global ammonia emissions, with the three nations responsible for a combined 47% of the world total as well as 65% of excessive nitrogen fertilizer use. If world leaders come to face and act upon the seriousness of this predicament in time, India, China, and the United States alone can purportedly reduce 10-20% of global nitrogen deposition if they commit to ending the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers.

But things don’t end here. The bigger picture reveals to us the fact that, even in the last 40 years, for instance, political sanctions regarding environmental health have not been kind to the planet. In the name of profit, many climate projects that set out to reverse damage to our biosphere wind up falling by the wayside of legislation. For far too long, the wellbeing of our global population and the land it stands upon has been treated as something politically optional. It is not.

If there’s one thing to take away from this story, it is the unfortunate truth that, while climate change has assumed a more pertinent role in conversations of the past decade than it has ever before, there are a lot of empty promises out there. Corporate entities, political figures, and other agents whose interests and gains rely on the exploitation of our shared environment have learned to craft expertly-written lip service, passing off their commitments to ending climate impacts as perfectly well-founded when they, of course, are not.

Unsure of who and what to trust, many of us may feel frustrated in the wake of corporate dishonesty and misleading copy. One way of combating these demoralizing circumstances is to be what can be considered a more "active" eater. By this we mean, be aware, and be wary of large-scale forces working to “fight climate change" in the food space. Look into the brands you buy and, whenever possible, get to know where your food comes from, who grew it, and how it was grown. Not after long, you’ll find producers willing to share these details transparently are more likely to employ more eco-friendly growing practices than their corporate counterparts.

Find out all you can about the ingredients that go into your body. It isn’t just a matter of bodily health, and it isn’t just about sustainability or workers’ rights either. In its entirety, this is a truly multifaceted issue that will spare no one from its effects. And at times when we’re made to feel as if our individual activity is powerless, recall that it is not. Collective action is the backbone of all progress, and in this case, where forces larger and richer than us cannot be trusted to uphold environmental commitments, we must turn inward to face each other as individuals with the knowledge that our combined efforts can instigate tangible improvement.


Article written by Local Roots contributor Jess Santoro / @jess_santoro

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