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Nitrogen in the Environment

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Nitrogen in the Environment

Excess nitrogen causes problems in developed nations, but nitrogen-poor soils threaten food security elsewhere.


5 min read
4 take-aways
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What's inside?

Vital for agriculture, nitrogen can also pollute the water and air, and harm human health.

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  • Scientific
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  • Hot Topic


Nitrogen in the environment is a two-edged sword. It’s vital for crop production, but overabundance in its reactive form can pollute water and air, and harm human and ecosystem health. In this article, UK ecologist and biogeochemist Carly J. Stevens offers an easy-to-understand summary of how humans have dramatically altered the distribution of nitrogen on Earth in ways that are detrimental to human health and the environment. She suggests how further actions can reduce reactive nitrogen’s harmful effects while boosting crop production in nitrogen-deficient regions.


Humans have altered the balance of nitrogen, an abundant element critical for life, in the environment.

Nitrogen cycles in different forms in different places. In its unreactive form (N2), it is the most abundant element in the atmosphere. It also combines with other elements to make reactive forms (Nr) that living things use to grow. By artificially extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere and turning it into fertilizer for crops and using combustion engines, humans have increased the ratio of Nr to N2 on the planet.

The added Nr moves readily through air, water and land in the form of gases emitted by agriculture and combustion engines, runoff from farmland, and the nitrogen in food, human and livestock waste.


About the Author

Carly J. Stevens is a plant ecologist and soil biogeochemist at Lancaster University’s Lancaster Environment Centre in Lancaster, UK.

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