Thursday, 8 December 2016

Responsible nitrogen management for sustainable futures

7th International Nitrogen Initiative Conference 2016

By Kirsten Davey 

While carbon pollution gets all the headlines for its role in climate change, nitrogen pollution is arguably a more challenging problem. Somehow we need to grow more food to feed an expanding population while minimising the problems associated with nitrogen fertiliser use.

This week nitrogen experts from around the world gathered in Melbourne to share their expertise of and address the challenges associated with its sustainable use in agriculture. The 7th International Nitrogen Initiative Conference attracted attendees from 44 countries across Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Including strong representation from ACIAR projects undertaking research into nitrogen use I the developing world.

Dr Cameron Gourley from Agriculture Victoria and Secretary of the International Nitrogen Initiative Conference explained to me that ‘nitrogen is essential for global and local food production and economic development. This kind of international collaboration is critical for us to find the right balance between food security well as taking responsibility for our environmental footprint.’

In Europe alone, the environmental and human health costs of nitrogen pollution is estimated to be €70-320 billion per year.

Region-specific research is necessary to improve soil health by recalling that nitrogen uptake by plants can be enhanced when it is balanced by other essential nutrients, sufficient soil organic matter.

Nitrogen is the nutrient most often deficient for crop production in developing countries and its efficient use can result in substantial economic return for farmers, resulting in increased food security. However, when nitrogen inputs to the soil system exceed crop needs, there is a possibility that excessive amounts of nitrate (NO3--N) may enter either ground or surface water. This can have long term damaging impacts on the environment, specifically waterways.

Managing nitrogen inputs to achieve a balance between profitable crop production and environmentally tolerable and sustainable levels of nitrate (NO3N) in water supplies should be every farmer’s goal. The behavior of nitrogen (N) in the soil system is complex, yet an understanding of how human and environmental interventions result in varying levels of nitrogen in the environment is essential for guiding and supporting small holder farmers and the agricultural sectors in developing countries in which we work. 

One of ACIAR’s research projects in Myanmar which was well represented at the conference was SMCN/2014/044: Management of nutrients for improved profitability and sustainability of crop production in Central Myanmar, with researchers from Myanmar and Australian presenting and attending.

Myanmar, like other countries in Asia, has made great efforts to intensify the production of rice (Oryza sativa L.) to feed a rapidly growing population. It is widely recognised that the underperformance of rice crops in Myanmar is closely related to the inadequate supply of nutrients, particularly nitrogen.
Most of these efforts have been concentrated on lowland paddy fields with irrigated double rice cropping systems. Nitrogen (N) rates applied by Myanmar farmers are generally low and do not consider economic aspects. 

Mineral nutrient management is crucial to boost rice production as nitrogen (N) is the most limiting nutrient. There is substantial potential to raise rice production by increased use of nitrogen (N) fertiliser, which will increase regional demand for fertilisers and the supply of rice in the international market in the near future. At this pivotal time in Myanmar’s development, this ACIAR project is working with researchers at the Yezin Agricultural University and the Department of Agriculture in Myanmar to expose the biophysical and socio-economic factors that lead to financially and environmentally viable intensification of rice production based largely reliant on nitrogen (N) fertilisation.

-          This is the embedded link of the video:
Another ACIAR project with strong representation is the conference was SMCN/2010/083: Improving the sustainability of rice-shrimp farming systems in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

Rice-shrimp farming has become increasingly difficult in parts of the Mekong due to increasing soil and water salinity. This ACIAR research project has investigated risk factors for rice-shrimp farming, described pond and rice field processes, and generated much needed environmental and farm management data-using stable isotope analysis to develop a better understanding of the contributions of rice and shrimp to the production system by describing nutrient pathways.

Of great interest was the research data which demonstrated that the rice-farming system in the Mekong Delta already has high nitrogen concentrations and adequate phosphorus. This system does not require fertiliser. This means farmers can increase the profitability of the farming system by reducing or eliminating fertiliser. A challenge not commonly faced by other developing countries in our region.

The project is now looking at how to disseminate information and training programs on better farming practices to government extension staff and policy makers, and for lead farmers and farming groups. This aims to ensure that there will be adoption of better management strategies to improve productivity and sustainability of rice-shrimp farming systems, and lead to opportunities to increase farmers’ incomes and food security.

There was also global collaboration on an innovative tool was highlighted at the conference. The N-footprint tool allows individuals and institutions to calculate and reduce their nitrogen footprints. Despite its ‘clean and green’ image, Australia has the largest N footprint both in food and energy sectors among all countries that have used the N-Calculator model. Beef consumption and production is the major contributor of the high food N footprint, while the heavy dependence on coal for electricity explains the large energy N footprint.

There was a piece published earlier in the week on The Conversation, Nitrogen pollution: the forgotten element of climate change, co-authored by ACIAR’s RPM, Rob Edis and the University of Melbourne soil science team. This explains the complexities of the issue of nitrogen use and pollution in the context of the conference. 

A global outcome of the conference was allocation by the United Nations Environmental Program and the Global Environment Facility for a global advisory platform on sustainable nitrogen use, the ‘International Nitrogen Management System’ (INMS). This USD $60 million is a first for the world in terms of agreement and support for responsible nitrogen use. The agreement aims to spearhead integrated management of the nitrogen cycle for clean water and air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and better soil and biodiversity protection. 

Professor Mark Sutton, from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) said, ‘Nitrogen pollution represents a huge waste of a valuable resource. In the EU alone, the fertilizer value of nitrogen losses from agriculture is around Euro 14 billion per year. This is equivalent to losing 25 per cent of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget (or 10 per cent of the entire EU budget) up in smoke or down the drain.’

International events such as these, where Australian and international researchers can share their knowledge and expertise generate positive results of increased awareness of global food security, climate change and associated environmental challenges of nitrogen use.
The conference went into great detail on aacknowledging the great benefit of reactive nitrogen to increase agricultural productivity and feed the fast growing world population, as well as acknowledging the strong tie between food production and population growth that speaks to the need to increase food access for the poorest sectors of the globe. Most importantly was the affirmation that we are all part of the problem and also part of the solution, and that optimising nitrogen management requires engagement across all of society, from farmers and energy providers to consumers.


ACIAR has published a number of research publications on nitrogen and its use in the agricultural sector.

·         Working with Rhizobia

·         Nitrogen fixation in Acacias

  Water and nitrogen management in wheat-maize production on the North China Plain

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