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A compound that gives life as easily as it takes: Jan Willem Erisman on BBC about ammonium nitrate

Following the Beirut explosion, BBC's podcast series The Foodchain explores the chemical that caused the blast: ammonium nitrate. A compound that is widely used to produce fertilizer. Professor of Environmental sustaibability Jan Willem Erisman tells about the effects of nitrogen on the environment.

Overlooked problem

'We have been overlooking nitrogen for a long time. Only since 30-40 years, in the Netherlands we have become aware that nitrogen is an issue environmentally in many aspects,' says Erisman. Although fertilizer with ammonium nitrate has been of great help for our global food production, it's causing serious issues. 'With the production of fertilizer, CO2 is released. but also other greenhouse gasses, including nitrogenoxide gasses. About 0.5 to 2 per cent of the total global greenhouse gass emission is directly related to fertilizer production.'

Dead zones

But the production is not the only problem. When sprayed on the fields, not all fertilizer is taken up by crops. The remaining nitrogen causes several problems. Erisman: 'The fertilizer in the soil burns up organic matter and releases CO2 from the soil into the atmosphere.'

'Secondly, the overload of nitrogen and phosphorous leaches out into the ground and surface waters, leading to pollution and eutrification.' Eutrification happens when the waters become enriched with fertilizer. This causes aquatic algue to grow, sucking up O2 and sufficating fish and other aquatic life. A problem that is more and more present in estuaries all across the world, leading to so-called dead zones with no or little life.

Erisman explains increases in dead zones can be found in midwest America, eastern China and north india. Zones that had a great boost in agricultural production.

Biodiversity loss

According to Erisman, the problems with nitrogen are just as serious as the problems regarding to climate change. Or maybe even worse: 'Nitrogen leads to biodiversity loss and once a species is lost, that's something you cannot repair.' So, it really a slowly building up and important environmental polluter.'

Later on in the podcast, Erisman also proposes some nature based solutions and talks about 'paying for the true costs of food.'

Curious? Listen to the whole podcast here: BBC's The Food Chain - The fertiliser that blew up Beirut

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