United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Managing nutrients presents both challenges and solutions to food security


As global populations increase, a growing demand for food can be achieved through sustainable production and use of fertilizers which if not managed correctly will impact food security as well as water quality and availability, fisheries and biodiversity, says a report launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, Building the Foundations for Sustainable Nutrient Management, notes that the food security of half of the world's population is dependent on the use of fertilizers but large amounts of fertilizers either escape into the atmosphere, or into groundwater, soil, rivers and coastal waters, creating an excess of nutrients in the environment.

At the same time, it added, nearly one billion people are affected by insufficient food production, a major factor being a shortage of the nutrients from fertilizers, i.e. nitrogen and phosphorous.

The study noted that many of the world's freshwater lakes, streams and reservoirs suffer from eutrophication (excess nutrients) and millions of people depend on wells for their water where nitrate levels are well above recommended levels. In developing countries an estimated 90 per cent of wastewater, a major source of excess nutrients, harmful to health and ecosystems, is discharged as untreated into waterways and coastal areas, the study said. In the marine sector, nutrient over-enrichment has caused an increase in the frequency, scale and duration of oxygen depletion (hypoxic) or 'dead zones'.

The report with input from policymakers, scientists, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and UN agencies is a collaborative work with the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM), incorporating the best practices and approaches in countries for managing nutrients and ensuring the benefits of food security.

'The problem of excess nutrients are expected to accelerate as the demand for food and bio-fuels increases and growing populations produce more wastewater but win-win situations are possible. Sustainable agricultural production is necessary, and so is protecting key ecosystem services,' said David Osborn, Coordinator of UNEP's Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA)

The impact of excess nutrients is particularly felt in coastal zones which contain highly productive ecosystems as well as large urban centers. Some 60 per cent of the world's population lives and works within 60 kilometers of coastline where fishing is an important livelihood.

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