, Volume 228, Issue 1, pp 3-15

The impact of humans on the nitrogen cycle, with focus on temperate arable agriculture

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Abstract

The 6 billion people alive today consume about 25 million tonnes of protein nitrogen each year, a requirement that could well increase to 40–45 million tonnes by 2050. Most of them ultimately depend on the Haber-Bosch process to fix the atmospheric N2 needed to grow at least part of their protein and, over the earth as a whole, this dependency is likely to increase. Humans now fix some 160 million tonnes of nitrogen per year, of which 98 are fixed industrially by the Haber-Bosch process (83 for use as agricultural fertilizer, 15 for industry), 22 during combustion and the rest is fixed during the cultivation of leguminous crops and fodders. These 160 million tonnes have markedly increased the burden of combined nitrogen entering rivers, lakes and shallow seas, as well as increasing the input of NH3, N2O, NO and NO2 to the atmosphere. Nitrogen fertilizers give large economic gains in modern farming systems and under favourable conditions can be used very efficiently. Losses of nitrogen occur from all systems of agriculture, with organic manures being particularly difficult to use efficiently. Although nitrate leaching has received much attention as an economic loss, a cause of eutrophication and a health hazard, gaseous emissions may eventually prove to be the most serious environmentally. Scientists working on the use and fate of nitrogen fertilizers must be careful, clear headed and vigilant in looking for unexpected side effects.