Livestock contribute both directly and indirectly to climate change through the emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Globally, the sector contributes 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the observed intensification of animal production and the resulting manure excesses, combined with a limited availability of arable land for the disposal of waste (manure, sludge, etc.) and the excessive use of chemical mineral fertilizers, has led to surplus fertilization and nutrient accumulation in many soils worldwide. These phenomena have caused environmental pollution. Leaching of nitrates and phosphates or runoff to water bodies has led to eutrophication of surface waters, atmospheric emissions, as well as soil erosion. In turn, these sources of pollution have stimulated the introduction of increasingly stringent regulations for the application of nutrients to agricultural fields, and have led to more strict requirements for the quality of discharge/emission from waste(water) and manure processing facilities.
Despite these unfavourable prospects, the agricultural demand for mineral fertilizers is continuously increasing, mainly due to the rising world population, the increasing meat consumption, and the cultivation of energy crops. However, natural nutrient resources (e.g. phosphorus, P, and potassium, K) are rapidly depleting due to intensive mining activities, while significant amounts of fossil energy are required for the production and transport of synthetically produced mineral nitrogen (N) fertilizers. This imbalance between availability and demand will continue to considerably push up the prices for nutrient resources in the near future. The increasing cost for fossil energy is another important price influencing factor, as a strong positive correlation between energy prices and fertilizer costs has been observed. Hence, the dependency of agriculture on fossil reserve-based mineral fertilizers (especially N, P, and K) must be regarded as a very serious threat to future human food security. A new global effort is needed to address ‘The Nutrient Nexus’, where reduced nutrient losses and improved nutrient use efficiency across all sectors simultaneously provide the foundation for a greener economy.
SeLow targets sustainable farming strategies that produce more food and energy with less environmental pollution.
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Some agricultural operations that can reduce nutrient pollution and improve the economic and environmental sustainability of the farm involve:
- Nutrient management: Applying fertilizers in the proper amount, at the right time of the year and with the right method can significantly reduce the potential for pollution. When available, bio-based recycled fertilizers with high nutrient use efficiency should be incorporated in the fertilization plan.
- Watershed efforts: The collaboration of a wide range of people and organizations often across an entire watershed is vital to reducing nutrient pollution. State governments, farm organizations, conservation groups, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, and community groups all play a part in successful efforts to improve water quality.
- Cover crops: Growing certain grasses, grains or clovers can help keeping nutrients out of the water by recycling excess nitrogen and reducing soil erosion.
- Buffers: Planting trees, shrubs and grass around fields, especially those that border water bodies, can help by absorbing or filtering out nutrients before they reach a water body.
- Conservation tillage: Reducing how often fields are tilled reduces erosion and soil compaction, builds soil organic matter, and reduces runoff.
- Managing livestock waste: Keeping animals and their waste out of streams, rivers, and lakes keeps nitrogen and phosphorus out of the water and restores stream banks. Processing of excess manure into high-quality concentrated fertilizers can provide an interesting solution in high-nutrient regions.
- Drainage water management: Reducing nutrient loadings that drain from agricultural fields helps prevent degradation of the water in local streams and lakes.