Nitrogen is a crucial input to food production and yet its oversupply in many parts of the world contributes to a number of environmental problems. Most policies dedicated to reducing agricultural nitrogen pollution focus on changing farmer behaviour. However, farm-level policies are challenging to implement and farmers are just one of several actors in the agri-food chain. The activities of other actors — from fertilizer manufacturers to wastewater treatment companies — can also impact nitrogen losses at the farm level and beyond. Consequently, policymakers have a broader range of policy options than traditionally thought to address nitrogen pollution from field to fork. Inspired by the concept of full-chain nitrogen use efficiency, this Perspective introduces the major actors common in agri-food chains from a nitrogen standpoint, identifies nitrogen policies that could be targeted towards them and proposes several new criteria to guide ex-ante analysis of the feasibility and design of different policy interventions. Sustainably feeding ten billion people by 2050 will require fundamental changes in the global food system — a broad portfolio of policy options and a framework for how to select them is essential.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Zhang, X. et al. Managing nitrogen for sustainable development. Nature 528, 51–59 (2015).
Galloway, J. N. et al. Transformation of the nitrogen cycle: recent trends, questions, and potential solutions. Science 320, 889–892 (2008).
Townsend, A. R. et al. Human health effects of a changing global nitrogen cycle. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1, 240–246 (2003).
Sutton, M. A. et al. (ed) Our Nutrient World: The Challenge to Produce more Food and Energy with less Pollution (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, 2013).
Nitrogen: Strategies for Resolving an Urgent Environmental Problem (SRU, 2015).
Human Acceleration of the Nitrogen Cycle: Managing Risks and Uncertainty (OECD, 2018).
Sutton, M. A. et al. The European Nitrogen Assessment (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Drawing down N 2O to Protect Climate and the Ozone Layer: A UNEP synthesis report (United Nations Environment Programme, 2013).
Lassaletta, L., Billen, G., Grizzetti, B., Anglade, J. & Garnier, J. 50 year trends in nitrogen use efficiency of world cropping systems: the relationship between yield and nitrogen input to cropland. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 105011 (2014).
Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems (Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2013).
Osmond, D. L., Hoag, D. L. K., Luloff, A. E., Meals, D. W. & Neas, K. Farmer’s use of nutrient management: lessons from watershed case studies. J. Environ. Qual. 44, 382–390 (2015).
Stuart, D., Schewe, R. L. & McDermott, M. Reducing nitrogen fertilizer application as a climate change mitigation strategy: Understanding farmer decision-making and potential barriers to change in the US. Land Use Policy 36, 210–218 (2014).
Snyder, C. S., Bruulsema, T. W., Jensen, T. L. & Fixen, P. E. Review of greenhouse gas emissions from crop production systems and fertilizer management effects. Agr. Ecosyst. Environ. 133, 247–266 (2009).
Leach, A. M. et al. Environmental impact food labels combining carbon, nitrogen, and water footprints. Food Policy 61, 213–223 (2016).
Newton, P., Agrawal, A. & Wollenberg, L. Enhancing the sustainability of commodity supply chains in tropical forest and agricultural landscapes. Global Environ. Change 23, 1761–1772 (2013).
Nepstad, D. et al. Slowing Amazon deforestation through public policy and interventions in beef and soy supply chains. Science 344, 1118–1123 (2014).
Barling, D. Food supply chain governance and public health externalities: upstream policy interventions and the UK State. J. Agr. Environ. Ethic 20, 285–300 (2007).
Dani, S. Food Supply Chain Management and Logistics: From farm to fork (Kogan Page, 2015).
Wu, Y. Y. et al. Policy distortions, farm size, and the overuse of agricultural chemicals in China. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 7010–7015 (2018).
Kanter, D. R. & Searchinger, T. D. A technology-forcing approach to reduce nitrogen pollution. Nat. Sustain. 1, 544–552 (2018).
Vollmer-Sanders, C., Allman, A., Busdeker, D., Moody, L. B. & Stanley, W. G. Building partnerships to scale up conservation: 4r nutrient stewardship certification program in the lake Erie watershed. J. Great Lakes Res. 42, 1395–1402 (2016).
Ponte, S. Greener than thou: the political economy of fish ecolabeling and its local manifestations in South Africa. World Dev. 36, 159–175 (2008).
Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).
Vogel, D. The private regulation of global corporate conduct achievements and limitations. Bus. Soc. 49, 68–87 (2010).
Baerenklau, K. & Tomich, T. P. in The California Nitrogen Assessment: Challenges and Solutions for People, Agriculture, and the Environment (eds T.P. Tomich, S.B. Brodt, R. Dahlgren, & K.M. Scow) (University of California Press, 2016).
Fullerton, D. A framework to compare environmental policies. Southern Econ. J. 68, (224–248 (2001).
Goulder, L. H. & Parry, I. W. H. Instrument Choice in Environmental Policy. Rev. Environ. Econ. Pol. 2, 152–174 (2008).
Krutilla, K. & Krause, R. Transaction costs and environmental policy: an assessment framework and literature review. Int. Rev. Environ. Resource Econ. 4, 261–354 (2010).
McConnell, V. The New CAFE Standards: Are They Enough on Their Own? (Resources for the Future, 2013).
Car & Automobile Manufacturing in the US (IBIS World, 2016).
Perez-Ramirez, J., Kapteijn, F., Schoffel, K. & Moulijn, J. A. Formation and control of N2O in nitric acid production: where do we stand today? Appl. Catal. B 44, 117–151 (2003).
Parry, A., Bleazard, P. & Okawa, K. Preventing Food Waste: Case Studies of Japan and the United Kingdom (OECD, 2015).
Ribaudo, M. et al. Nitrogen in Agricultural Systems: Implications for Conservation Policy (United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 2011).
Kanter, D. R., Wentz, J. A., Galloway, J. N., Moomaw, W. R. & Winiwarter, W. Managing a forgotten greenhouse gas under existing US law: An interdisciplinary analysis. Environ. Sci. Policy 67, 44–51 (2017).
Velthof, G. L. et al. The impact of the nitrates directive on nitrogen emissions from agriculture in the EU-27 during 2000–2008. Sci. Total Environ. 468, 1225–1233 (2014).
Raggi, M., Viaggi, D., Bartolini, F. & Furlan, A. The role of policy priorities and targeting in the spatial location of participation in Agri-Environmental Schemes in Emilia-Romagna (Italy). Land Use Policy 47, 78–89 (2015).
Clapp, J. & Fuchs, D. Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance (MIT Press, 2009).
Westhoek, H. et al. Nitrogen on the Table: The influence of Food Choices on Nitrogen Emissions and the European Environment (Center for Ecology & Hydrology, 2015).
Oita, A. et al. Substantial nitrogen pollution embedded in international trade. Nat. Geosci. 9, https://doi.org/10.1038/Ngeo2635 (2016).
Owusu, P. A., Asumadu-Sarkodie, S. & Ameyo, P. A review of Ghana’s water resource management and the future prospect. Cogent Eng. 3, https://doi.org/10.1080/23311916.2016.1164275 (2016).
Falkner, R. Business Power and Conflict in International Environmental Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Kanter, D. R., Zhang, X. & Mauzerall, D. L. Reducing nitrogen pollution while decreasing farmers’ costs and increasing fertilizer industry profits. J. Environ. Qual. 44, 325–335 (2015).
Carroll, A. B. & Shabana, K. M. The business case for corporate social responsibility: a review of concepts, research and practice. Int. J. Manag. Rev. 12, 85–105 (2010).
Kanter, D. R. Nitrogen pollution: a key building block for addressing climate change. Clim. Change 147, 11–21 (2018).
Billen, G., Garnier, J. & Lassaletta, L. The nitrogen cascade from agricultural soils to the sea: modelling nitrogen transfers at regional watershed and global scales. Philos. Trans. Royal Soc. B 368, 20130123 (2013).
Fowler, D. et al. Effects of global change during the 21st century on the nitrogen cycle. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 15, 13849–13893 (2015).
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Kanter, D.R., Bartolini, F., Kugelberg, S. et al. Nitrogen pollution policy beyond the farm. Nat Food 1, 27–32 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-019-0001-5
Agronomy for Sustainable Development (2021)
Nature Food (2021)
Optimal hydroponic growth of Brassica oleracea at low nitrogen concentrations using a novel pH-based control strategy
Science of The Total Environment (2021)
Replacing synthetic fertilizer by manure requires adjusted technology and incentives: A farm survey across China
Resources, Conservation and Recycling (2021)