28 March 2023

A new project will monitor global nitrogen emissions from fertilizers


The Global Research Alliance initiative aims to increase the availability of data on the impact of fertilizers on the Planet. And to better assess the effectiveness of mitigation practices

by Matteo Cavallito


A new project launched by the Global Research Alliance (GRA), an international organization for scientific cooperation that includes 67 member countries, aims to properly quantify agricultural emissions related to the use of nitrogen fertilizers. Founded in 2009, the Alliance is committed to studying new methods of mitigating the impact of crops and livestock on the environment and climate.

The latest research project, discussed in recent weeks at the Agricultural Climate Research Centre of Teagasc, the agri-food research authority of the Republic of Ireland, aims to improve the availability of data on the phenomenon. As well as to identify best management practices to help farmers reduce emissions associated with their activities.

The data problem

Gas emissions from the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, GRA explains, “can vary significantly depending on how, where and when a fertilizer is used.” In addition, “iModifying farm systems and making changes to management practices, such as timing, amount, rate and location of fertilizer application, has been shown to dramatically influence the amount of N2O being emitted.”

The problem, however, is that calculating the impact of substances is not simple. “Quantifying the emissions from applying nitrogenous fertilizers in different situations in national inventories is a significant challenge for many countries,” says a statement from GRA.

Moreover, “There is a dearth of information on the environmental and soil conditions and relevant variables that underpin estimates of these emissions, with significant gaps existing for some regions and productive systems.” limits the accountability of national GHG inventories, and the possibility to adequately reflect the effect of mitigation actions implemented.”

New measurements are needed

As part of the project, researchers will compile existing data and conduct new field measurements to identify context-specific emission factors. This will better assess the impact of fertilizers and enable more accurate accounting of emissions and the effectiveness of mitigation practices. Some countries, such as Ireland and New Zealand, have already allocated public funding for an international database of greenhouse gas release in grassland.

According to Marta Alfaro, deputy director of the Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias in Santiago, Chile, the project will encourage global efforts to reduce GHG emissions from nitrogen fertilizers, allowing their use to be more accurately reported in national GHG accounting, and to optimize the efficiency of nitrogen use in crops and pastures.

Soil absorbs more than 100 million tons of fertilizer per year

The impact of substances in global soils remains a hot topic. Last year, FAO’s Global Assessment of Soil Pollution report showed how the impact of the most harmful human activities has grown in the 21st century. In 2018, in particular, Earth’s soils absorbed 109 million tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. A phenomenon that comes alongside the growing use of pesticides (more 75 percent on a global scale between 2000 and 2017).

The problems, however, are not confined to soils. A recent study by a group of scientists at Nagoya University in Japan, for example, showed how nitrogen from the soil is a major contributor to the contamination of waterways. And not without consequences. “Nitrate is an essential nutrient for plants and phytoplankton,” the authors explain. “But excessive nitrate levels in streams can damage water quality, cause eutrophication (the over-enrichment of water by nutrients), and pose health risks to animals and humans.”