Nitrogen and its alter egos: the mutable assassins

By Rose,
on 17 July 2022

Anyone who ever played with building blocks in kindergarten will recognize something in this memory: You want to build a tower – one that’s taller and bigger than you. Teetering on your toes, you keep trying to place one more block on top of the somewhat crooked tower… And it goes wrong, of course: someone storms in and you knock over your tower in shock! With a trembling lip and clenched fists, you look at all the blocks scattered around: it’s a mess you’ll have to clean up yourself.

Here on earth, nitrogen is a kind of building block – a building block for nature. But nature is not constructed the way a simple tower of blocks is; it’s a fantastic and ingenious system in which the surprising cooperation between all kinds of organisms, from large to small, and the chemical reactions in the soil, air and water, ensure that nitrogen can do its good work (video in Dutch). Namely, Nitrogen is indispensable for the production of proteins and DNA in plants, animals and humans.

But there is now a nitrogen crisis, because we humans have learned how to capture those nitrogen building blocks from the air to make fertilizer so we can grow more food and keep more livestock. More fertilizer, more livestock and more manure means more nitrogen.

Wait, but we need that nitrogen, don’t we? Absolutely! But here’s the problem: Nitrogen is difficult to hold on to, and if organisms don’t use it, it will return to the air, soil or water in nitrogen compounds. It’s these ‘runaway’ nitrogen compounds that disrupt things, as a greenhouse gas in the air or as a surplus in ground and surface water.

In the meantime, we’ve also started producing, building and traveling more – activities that go hand-in-hand with greater fossil fuel combustion. And, you guessed it, nitrogen is released with these emissions too.

And that’s how the beautiful natural cycle, that has built just about everything on earth, falls out of balance: we are flooded with far more building blocks than is good for us – more than we can see. The tower has fallen over, there’s a big mess, and a fight is breaking out in the play area. Who’s going to clean this up?


Missing butterflies and broken bird bones

More to the point, why would we clean it up? Anyone who follows the news to some extent might understand that this broken cycle cannot simply be reversed. Cleaning up will cost money and create greater financial burdens, we will no longer be allowed to build, we’ll have to invest, and it will take a long time. Farmers are panicking, the housing market is stuck, and air travel is a less obvious choice. Is it all worth it?

Not only is it worth it, it’s necessary. Wim de Vries, professor of environmental analysis at WUR, agrees: in our podcast, he talks about the harmful consequences of, as he calls it, this ‘wicked problem’.

One of those consequences is air pollution. Particulate matter is an important cause of death, and 40% of particulate matter is made up of nitrogen compounds. And there’s even more going on: there are plants that grow faster because of all that nitrogen, and plants that are less sensitive to it. In addition, the nitrogen-containing compound nitrate causes acidification and thus mineral depletion of the soil. The plants that thrive on nitrogen and don’t mind acidic, lime-depleted soil now have the upper hand. You hardly see the wild orchid in the wild anymore, because it has been displaced by the stinging nettle. And where you could once see heather, now you see large grazers like cattle grazing to curb the spread of rampant marram grass. When plants disappear, so do insects, butterflies, bees and birds. And those that remain are weakened by the lack of lime in the soil. Read this article about the Hoge Veluwe and let the dire consequences sink in: there are areas where 90% of the oak trees have died, where the snails can no longer build houses, where the bluetits lay eggs that don’t hatch or produce chicks whose legs break before they have left the nest, and where birds of prey have disappeared because of the food shortage…

The increase of nitrogen compounds in the water has consequences too. In that well-known green dyke that’s covered with algae, the algae grow faster, crowding out other plants and letting little sunlight penetrate to the bottom. This changes marine life: plants and animals die, which changes the oxygen ratio, and that in turn leads to the death of other organisms. Some animals can adapt to these changing conditions, by adjusting their eating habits and living on plants instead of other animals. This is a major change in the food chain, and we do not yet know what the consequences will be. Both our podcast and the Netflix documentary Breaking Boundaries cite the Baltic Sea and surrounding area as being in serious trouble due to a nitrogen surplus. Another concern is the increase of nitrite (which is produced by a chemical reaction with nitrate) in groundwater and ultimately our drinking water. Scientists are therefore concerned about health problems such as certain cancers and ‘blue baby syndrome’.


So action is needed! But what’s the situation now?

The Council of State determined three years ago that the government should do more to protect vulnerable areas of nature against nitrogen, but only recently was the action plan revealed. The measures will hit the farmers hard. For years, solutions have been sought in vain in the form of technical agricultural innovations. But now it seems unavoidable: with the steadily growing agricultural sector, over the past three years we have exceeded the limit of what’s healthy, and technical resources simply cannot compete with that. It’s therefore inevitable that farmers will have to downsize, relocate or switch to a different business. This automatically means they’ll suffer a loss, which is a reason for the farmers to go to the barricade.


Kees Klomp, lecturer in the Purpose Economy (Betekeniseconomie in Dutch) at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, explains the problem clearly in his column, and he also sheds a different light on it. To make our air and soil healthy again, we don’t necessarily need fewer farmers, but rather different ones: ‘There are plenty of future prospects for farmers,’ he says. ‘After all, the Netherlands has always needed farmers, and we will do in the future – farmers who work regeneratively and in a nature-inclusive way. In other words, farmers who produce healthy food in a healthy way.’ Many farmers have already made the transition to more regenerative agriculture, looking for a way out of the nitrogen crisis. In 2020, PBL published a report showing that half of the farmers are already doing something for the environment and, with the right help, want to become more sustainable. For an even more concrete picture of this hopeful perspective, read this article. It provides good practical examples of the steps that are already being taken towards sustainable agriculture and livestock farming, and it references research showing that ecological agriculture is not only feasible and affordable, but could even generate €1 billion annually!


Can we get started already?

Of course! Here are some suggestions:

Watch your driving style. If you do take the car, try to drive economically and stick to the speed limit. This saves emissions and therefore also nitrogen.

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