इंडियन आवाज़     21 May 2024 09:12:36      انڈین آواز

Nitrogen vs Food Security

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The government’s latest decision to spend Rs 350 crore to assess the degradation of environment due to improper use of nitrogen based fertilizers and to educate farmers in at least 100 districts vulnerable to climate-change indicates the pressure mounted by environmentalists from all over the world.
This pressure to cut down on use of reactive nitrogen in agriculture could further mount even as India is yet to fully address the ever threatening food security situation. The UPA government has committed itself to getting a Food Security Bill enacted by the Parliament.  Once this bill is enacted  government will not just be obliged but legally bound to provide food to the poor of the country. But it would require a substantial increase in country’s agricultural production, about 65 million tonnes, Food & Agricultural Minister Sharad Pawar had said during a conference in Delhi early this month.

The 65 million tonnes requirement of foodgrains is based on the recommendation of the Sonia Gandhi headed National Advisory Council (NAC) which was subsequently announced by Pratibha Patil. She had announced that government will provide 25 kg of rice or wheat a month to poor at Rs 3 per kg. The requirement of foodgrains is higher than the government’s total procurement of 50-56 million tonnes in last two years, Pawar had pointed out while adding that “if we have to procure 65 million tonnes from the open market, we have to see that production has been substantially increased."

Precisely here is the catch. More food production implies greater use of nitrogen based fertilizers. Nitrogen is an inert gas but in its reactive form (mainly used in fertilizers) has been mainly responsible for multiplying food-grain productivity the world over during the last 40 years. India’s green revolution could also not have been possible without massive doze of nitrogen based fertilizer inputs. In fact, out of all fertilizers used in the country, over 70 percent are nitrogen based. And we are world’s second largest user of chemical fertilizers.

But usage of reactive nitrogen has also had serious implications on soil fertility, bio-diversity, ozone layer and climate change primarily because nature has limited capacity to absorb nitrogen leakages.

Reactive nitrogen compounds (NO3, NO2, NOx, N02, N2O etc) accumulating in soil, water and air, some of which are 300 times more reactive than their carbon-counterparts in terms of their global warming potential has been a cause of serious concern to scientific community. Due to the limited capacity of nature to neutralize the reactive forms of N into relatively inert N2 gas, the global nitrogen cycle has become the most anthropogenically altered nutrient cycle on earth.

Speaking at the International Nitrogen Conference held in New Delhi, recently, Dr Cheryl Palm, Senior Research Scientist in Earth sciences from Colombia University and chairperson of International Nitorgen Initiative had said, “Global nitrogen cycle represents one of the most important nutrient cycles that sustain life on earth but today, humans add 1.5 times more nitrogen than the natural terrestrial processes combined together through a combination of agriculture and fossil fuel use, and unduly influence the global nitrogen cycle.”

Environmentalists and countries such as the Netherlands (a low-lying nation) which are at increased risk due to climate change, have been advocating and pressuring the world community to cut down the usage of nitrogen.

But the question remains, can India or the world afford to cut down the N-usage especially as global population is set to double in the next 25 years and food security will be prime concern of all governments?

Participants at the Nitrogen Conference, which included over 400 scientists from 37 countries, concentrated on understanding the consequences of reactive nitrogen and to find the best possible way to manage reactive nitrogen without impacting food security or adversely impacting environment.

According to Dr M S Swaminathan, the biggest challenge in the coming years is going to be how scientific community and policy makers respond to the twin but conflicting challenges of food security and environmental concerns, even as Indian policies move from patronage era to rights-based approach. He believes that India can deliver on the right to food only if productivity is improved by properly managing inputs such as nitrogen, as land is going out of agriculture.

Dr Sybil P Seitzinger of International Geosphere –Biosphere Programme, Stockholm, Sweden also has similar views. “The multiple positive and negative impacts of nitrogen (N) on eco-systems and society present an unprecedented challenge for science and management. How can we sustainably use nitrogen to produce the food, fiber and energy for the Earth’s seven billion people while minimizing degradation of air and water quality, bio-diversity and ecosystem services, is the critical question today.”

Fertilizer industry can breathe easy for now as the larger opinion of scientific community appeared to be tilted in favour of efficient use of nitrogen rather than cutting down its usage as food security concerns are currently overriding while negative impacts, in the opinion of scientists, could be mitigated through effective nitrogen management.

“Due to environmental and economic constraints, another doubling of food production must be met through improved N use efficiency rather than more N fertilizer inputs,” said Dr Fu-Suo Zhang, from College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, China Agricultural University, China. According to Dr N Raghuram, coordinator of Indian Nitrogen Group, “In Indian agriculture, genuine demands for expansion of fertilizer N use in some areas co-exist with the concerns over the environmental hazards of excessive and inefficient N-fertlizer sue in other areas. The solution lies in efficient nitrogen-management.”

While scientific community debated the N-question, Indian government appeared quite clear as to what its priorities were as Prof K V Thomas, India minister of state for agriculture & consumer affairs firmly stresses that food security is the top priority of the government, while the government is also committed to address environmental concerns.

Writer is a senior journalist



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