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Meeting the nitrogen management challenge: Arresting the nitrogen cascade

DENVER,CO Nitrogen is central to food production, helping feed almost 40 percent of the world's growing population, but the element also starts a cascade that moves through the atmosphere, soils, and waters, dramatically altering the environment.

In order to meet future need and preserve the environment, new strategies and opportunities for improved nitrogen management must be developed, scientists said today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.

The nitrogen cycle is one of the most important processes in nature for living organisms. Although nitrogen gas is relatively inert, bacteria in the soil are capable of "fixing" the nitrogen into a usable form fertilizer for plants. Humans and animals consume the plant material where the nitrogen has been incorporated into their system, primarily as protein.

Human activity has also altered the nitrogen cycle. The human production of food and energy initiates a process that breaks the triple bond of the nitrogen molecule, creating reactive nitrogen. Ammonia, nitrous oxide, or nitric oxide volatilized to the air, produced by the reactive nitrogen, cascades through environmental reservoirs in the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems, and aquatic ecosystems.

The nitrite can make surface and subsurface waters unsuitable for humans, livestock, and wildlife. Air emissions of nitrous oxide cause acidification of soil and water, or regional smog, and can reduce biodiversity on the affected land, impact agricultural and forestry production, and lead to health effects in humans and animals.

"Given the critical need for nitrogen in food production and the sequential nature of the effects of too much nitrogen, it is imperative that strategies be developed to optimize nitrogen management in food and energy production and in environmental protection," said James Galloway of the University of Virginia. "Because the consequences of nitrogen
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16-Feb-2003


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