More Food, Low Pollution (MoFoLoPo): Managing Nitrogen for Sustainable Development

Saturday, February 13, 2016: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Wilson A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Eric Davidson, University of Maryland, Frostburg, MD
Synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizer has enabled modern agriculture to greatly improve human nutrition during the 20th century, but it has also created unintended human health and environmental pollution challenges for the 21st century. Averaged globally, about half of the fertilizer-N applied to farms is removed with the crops, while the other half remains in the soil or is lost from farmers’ fields, resulting in water and air pollution. As human population continues to grow and food security improves in the developing world, the dual goals of producing more nutritious food with low pollution will require both technological and socio-economic innovations in agriculture. Growing more food while minimizing air and water pollution is a “wicked” problem, due to complex interactions among sectors and among stakeholders who stand to win or lose from evolving environmental, energy, and food security policies. While management practices for increased nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) already exist for both increasing agricultural productivity and advancing environmental sustainability, their widespread adoption by farmers is often impeded by economic and social barriers. Historical patterns of NUE reveal a broad range of national approaches to agricultural development and related pollution. I will analyze examples of N use and propose targets, by geographic region and crop type, to meet the 2050 global food demand projected by the Food and Agriculture Organization while also meeting the Sustainable Development Goals pertaining to agriculture recently adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. To achieve the needed large increases in NUE, technological developments must be accompanied by policies that recognize the complex economic and social factors affecting farmer decision making and national policy priorities. Farmers need access to affordable nutrient supplies and support information, and the costs of improving efficiencies and avoiding pollution may need to be shared by society through innovative policies. Success will require interdisciplinary partnerships across public and private sectors, including farmers, private sector crop advisors, commodity supply chains, government agencies, university research and extension, and consumers.