LONDON (Reuters) – Nitrogen compounds play a vital role in feeding a rising world population but they also pollute air, soil and water, costing each person in Europe up to 740 euros ($1,066) a year, according to a study published on Monday.
The study, carried out by 200 experts from 21 countries and 89 organizations, estimated the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe was 70 billion to 320 billion euros.
"Nearly, half the world's population depends on synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizer for food but measures are needed to reduce the impacts of nitrogen pollution," said lead editor Mark Sutton of the UK's Center for Ecology and Hydrology.
"Solutions include more efficient use of fertilizers and manures, and people choosing to eat less meat."
Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of nitrogen emissions. The livestock sector, including crops grown for animal feed, accounts for most of that.
It only, however, accounts for 40 percent of the cost as the nitrogen compounds produced through burning fossil fuels pose a greater threat to the environment.
The study was due to be launched on Monday at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland which Sutton said would be run with "half meat portions."
"The amount of livestock we chose to have is critical in determining the scale of the impacts," Sutton said.
Nitrogen accounts for about 78 percent of the earth atmosphere and only poses a threat to human health, soil, water and ecosystems when it is transformed into compounds such as nitrous oxide.
"Nitrogen is absolutely critical for human wellbeing but the challenge is how do we capture the benefits of nitrogen and minimize the adverse effects," said Robert Watson, chief scientist at Britain's ministry for environment, farming and rural affairs.
"It is not about getting rid of fertilizers, it is how do we use fertilizers in a much more careful way through precision agriculture so we capture those benefits for agricultural productivity without having these negative effects," he told reporters are a briefing ahead of the report's release.
Watson said NOx (nitrogen oxides) emissions had dropped 60 percent since 1990 in Britain and nitrogen fertilizer use had dropped by 19 percent between 1998 and 2010.
"Things are going in the right direction, what this (report) is saying is we need to go further to avoid this environmental damage," he said.
(Reporting by Nigel Hunt; Editing by Jason Neely)