N footprinting – new tool shows importance of Nitrogen losses to the environment

  • A new tool has been developed to enable individuals to calculate their overall nitrogen footprint. This draws attention to the amount of reactive nitrogen (Nr) lost to the environment through food production and fossil fuel combustion, which can be an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The calculator uses average per capita data for a country and is then scaled by the individual’s answers about resource consumption in the following areas: food consumption, housing transportation and, goods and services.
  • While the use of other “footprints” as a measure of the single or collective environmental burdens from a particular source is well known, such as the carbon, water or ecological footprint, the authors of the tool felt it was appropriate to draw attention to the negative impacts of nitrogen loss to help consumers and policymakers minimise their impact on the nitrogen cycle. Along the principles of other life-cycle based indicators, the N-calculator provides an integrated approach that includes up-stream processes that release Nr.
  • Different food products demand different amounts of nitrogen to create the consumable food product. There are substantial differences both between plant and animal products and within plant (e.g. vegetable vs. cereals) and animal (e.g. milk vs. beef) products. In that regard, both vegetable products and animal products start with the same procedure to calculate the Nr released as a result of growing a crop, but the animal product calculations extend through the production process of the actual
  • The introduction of new indicators can be used to draw the attention of both public and policy makers to the environmental impacts of a product, service or activity. The report observes that the ranking of food products, for example, in terms of their N footprint is not necessarily consistent with the ranking of their carbon footprint and highlights the need for indicators to be used jointly, not independently.

Furthermore there is a distinct need for careful management of such indicators. The use of an overarching sustainability indicator may be dangerous in that they can over- simplify highly complex systems, are subject to bias, and can lead to a loss of awareness of the actual impacts of a product or service. The introduction of a new indicator warrants careful guidance and explanation if it is to be used properly and not get lost within the wider spectrum of footprints and tools.

For more information, visit: http://tinyurl.com/cew35az

About Julia Chatterton

Systems modeller with a particular expertise in food, farming and agricultural systems. Working with life cycle assessment methods for over 4 years to assess and analyse the environmental burdens associated with food and other production systems.
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