If you want to better gauge how your lifestyle affects the environment, there is now a “nitrogen footprint” to set alongside your carbon footprint.
A new Web-based calculator, created by UVA environmental scientist James N. Galloway, UVA staff research assistant Allison Leach, and colleagues from the Netherlands and the University of Maryland, measures an individual’s impact on the nitrogen cycle according to factors such as diet and transportation choices.
“Nitrogen, as any farmer knows, is essential to plant life,” says Galloway, “but the widespread use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to boost crop production has resulted in excess nitrogen coming off farms—essentially adding unwanted, unneeded fertilizer to our natural systems, with disastrous results. The combustion of fossil fuels adds even more nitrogen to our environment.”
For the last 30 years, Galloway and other scientists have documented fish kills in coastal areas, threats to human health from water and air pollution, and changes in global biodiversity and climate. Still, nitrogen pollution remains a largely untold story, he says.
The nitrogen calculator, part of the global International Nitrogen Initiative, is meant to raise awareness and stir people to action. Galloway and his team are also developing calculators for farmers and other nitrogen users, plus another for policymakers to provide regional nitrogen emission ceilings.
“There are readily available solutions to reducing nitrogen pollution,” he says. “By connecting consumers, producers and policymakers, we can solve it.”
Ways to lessen one’s individual nitrogen footprint include reducing air travel, choosing renewable energy sources and eating less meat, especially beef. Cattle consume massive amounts of grains that require much fertilizer.