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Will you give up food to fight ‘climate change!? ‘Food has a climate problem: Nitrous oxide emissions are accelerating with growing demand for fertilizer & meat’

Food’s role in climate change has emerged as one of the defining challenges of our time. The journey of a steak, fruit or salad from the vast expanses of agricultural lands to the plates on our tables leaves a significant footprint on the environment.

At the heart of this challenge is the prodigious use of fertilizers and a growing global population’s increasing demand for meat.

As earthclimate and atmospheric scientists, we track global greenhouse gas emissions and just published the most comprehensive assessment yet of a powerful greenhouse gas from food production: nitrous oxide, or N₂O.

After carbon dioxide and methane, N₂O is the most consequential greenhouse gas humans are releasing into the atmosphere. While there is less N₂O than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it is 300 times more powerful at warming the planet, and it remains in the atmosphere, holding in heat, for over a century. Today, atmospheric N₂O levels are about 25% higher than before the Industrial Revolution, and they’re still rising at an accelerating rate.

How to reduce N₂O emissions

Addressing the challenge of reducing N₂O emissions requires a combination of policy interventions, technological innovation and individual actions. For example:

  • Policies can encourage farmers to adopt nitrogen-efficient practicesoptimize fertilizer use and reduce N₂O emissions and other forms of nitrogen pollution through a variety of incentive programs.
  • Precision agriculture techniques, including the use of remote sensing and satellite GPS-guided equipment, can help farmers vary the rate of fertilizer applied to optimize nutrient management and minimize nitrogen losses, thereby reducing N₂O emissions.
  • The development and adoption of nitrogen-efficient fertilizers, such as controlled-release formulations and nitrification inhibitors, also offer promising ways to reduce nitrogen runoff and curb N₂O emissions from agricultural soils.
    • Consumers can also make plant-based foods a larger fraction of their diets. You don’t need to become vegan unless you want to, but reducing the frequency and portion sizes of meat and dairy consumption can be healthy for both you and the environment. Eco-friendly practices like composting food wastes and reducing fertilizer use on lawns also help.

    Overall, a holistic approach combining policy, technology and individual actions is needed to address N₂O emissions and combat climate change. With governments, industries and citizens all working toward a sustainable future, these strategies can help ensure food security and environmental sustainability for future generations.