Climate Change

Halving nitrogen pollution in agri-food systems


The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have joined forces to advocate for urgent action to transform agri-food systems and halve nitrogen waste by 2030.  

The webinar “Nitrogen Challenges in Agri-food systems: Halve Nitrogen Waste by 2030” , held on 7 December 2020, aimed to raise awareness of the nitrogen challenges and potential technical solutions and policies for sustainable nitrogen management in agriculture. It was the first of a series of webinars that will be organized to promote sustainable nitrogen management through science and policy.  

Nitrogen, in its inert state, is naturally abundant in the earth’s atmosphere. However, only the “reactive” form of nitrogen is available to plants, animals and microbial life processes. The use of reactive nitrogen in agriculture and food production has greatly contributed to food security, nutrition and the livelihoods of a growing world population. However, its excessive and inadequate use has major negative impacts on people and the planet contributing to climate change, and producing pollutants that affect air and water quality and lead to land pollution. To address global warming and protect biodiversity, it is vital to manage reactive nitrogen more efficiently.  

In his opening remarks Eduardo Mansur, FAO Director of the Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment, said: “The urgency with which nitrogen threats must be mitigated while preserving the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people require strong policy responses and the commitment of  all countries.” 

 “We need to look at designing policies to support the integration of crop and livestock production and incentivize farmers on the adoption of best management practices to enhance nitrogen use efficiency and reduce pollution in agri-food systems”, added Leticia Carvalho, Head of UNEP’s Marine and Freshwater Branch, Ecosystems Division.  

Five keynote presentations provided an overview of the magnitude of nitrogen issues and policy solutions. They highlighted international nitrogen management systems, the contribution of the livestock sector and crop production systems to nitrogen waste and pollution, the role of nitrogen sinks in soils and their potential to enhance soil carbon sequestration as well as policy action to implement the UNEA resolution on sustainable nitrogen management.   

The webinar also featured a dynamic panel discussion where experts shared their opinions and thoughts on actions to step up efforts for nitrogen management in the crop and livestock sector while addressing air and water pollution. 

 Key messages  

  • At present, 80 percent of nitrogen used in agriculture is lost to the environment. Innovative solutions are needed to move nitrogen management towards a circular bio-economy. Such innovation requires tailored policies and investment, which can also support recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Raising global awareness on nitrogen challenges is needed to translate science into action among United Nations systems and its member nations.

  • Sustainable nitrogen management needs to be recognized as a shared responsibility among all stakeholders, enabling them to work together to build a coherent policy framework that addresses every stage of the nitrogen cycle.

  • Change on the ground requires redistribution of existing resources and better access to innovative technologies and financial resources.

The next webinar is planned for March 2021, following the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly. Further information will be available soon.

Useful links 

Watch the recording 

See the concept note, agenda and speakers’ profile

See the keynote presentations