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Nitrogen, 'good' or 'bad'?

 
Posts: 33
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Hello dear Permies,

I would like to know your opinions on the following:

In The Netherlands the Raad van State (a science thinktank that advises the government on their policies) argued that the amounts of nitrogen in the Dutch atmosphere is far to high, driven by the outputs of nitrogen by the agricultural sector, industry and transport.

The problem with the nitrogen is its bad for nature, so argues the Raad van State, because blackberries and nettles start to grow really well on all that nitrogen. According to the advice organ, these plants are too invasive, and drive out more delicate plants.

It seems that the Dutch idea about preserving nature, is mainly about the idea that The Netherlands nature should consist mostly of heath. Allthough everything was forest in the past, we started to believe that the artificial landscape we created over the centuries, is actually nature that needs preserving.

In my opinion it would be better to leave to nature to decide whats nature? Alltough I think there are good reasons to do something about pollution, isnt a nitrogen surplus a good thing? I mean if we leave nature to shape itself, the heath would become overgrown with pioneers like blackberries, who in turn give protection to small trees, so over time everything would change back into forest.

I know this topic might seem political, for me its just about science, knowledge, what we know about permaculture. Does the point of view of the Raad van State make any sense?
 
master pollinator
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Andreas - What specifically does this group propose to change, and who on their advisory panel understands atmospheric chemistry and biology?

I ask because the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere is both huge and stable. 78 percent of the air around us is nitrogen molecules. There is nothing we can do to move this number appreciably. There are only two natural pathways to take atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into reactive forms that plants can use: lightning and bacterial fixation. Everything else that we use as plant food is either some downstream product of these processes or something that was manufactured in an industrial setting.

Now, there are many common compounds of nitrogen and some of these are gases. Nitrous oxide (N2O) comes to mind. It is a byproduct of certain microbial metabolic processes and can be emitted from soils that have an excess of other nitrogen compounds as they are broken down by the bacteria. N2O is problematic from a climate perspective because it is about 300 times as effective as CO2 at trapping heat, and it persists in the atmosphere for over 100 years. It also destroys stratospheric ozone. So we really want to curb emissions of this stuff.

The Raad van State, if it is really a science organisation, must surely understand that the atmosphere over the Netherlands right now is not the same atmosphere that was there an hour ago, and will not be there tomorrow. I suppose that on a clear, calm night you could have localised concentrations of gases that hang around thanks to a temperature inversion, but that will usually be vehicle exhaust and smoke from fireplaces. I don't see how there could be persistent and significant excess amounts of nitrogen just over one small corner of Europe, and even if such a thing happened, you would still need lots of lightning or rhizobial bacteria to turn it into something useful to plants.
 
pollinator
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It's biodiversity, take a nice wildflower meadow and put nitrogen on it. you'll lose at least 50% of the plants almost instantly. They have evolved to live in poor conditions and under those conditions compete favorably with the grasses and other "stronger" plants like docks and nettles, when you add extra fertiliser the docks, nettles and grass can take better advantage and out compete most of the other plants leading to fields with a low biodiversity.
If one were to let all the open land revert to woodland there would again be a huge loss of biodiversity, not just in plants that require open heaths or grasslands but also in animals, insects and birds. Over many thousands of years European wildlife has evolved to live with humans and their activities, it is only fairly recently that we have stopped managing things in the same way.

Do they mean Nitrogen in the air or do they mean in the environment as a whole, because run off nitrogen is a huge issue for all bodies of water.
 
Andreas Schäfer
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Hi Skandi and Phil, thanks for your posts!

Phil, to be honest I called the Raad van State a scientific organisation, but it isn't really. Its the highest court of the Netherlands, as well as an advisory organ for the government. It was founded in 1531, nowadays some question if its a good idea to have those functions combined in one organisation. While the king is the president of the board, the other members are judges, politicians and scientists.

The Raad van State wants the amount of nitrogen that is released into the atmosphere, being reduced. Therefore farmers should reduce the amount of livestock, but there it becomes very political all over sudden. So how we are going to get that reduction depends on the ruling parties. After the United States, The Netherlands is the second biggest agricultural exporter in the world (can you imagine..) and some would like to keep it that way.

Most news articles I read about this just talk about nitrogen in general in the environment. Skandi, I understand that nitrogen can have an negative inpact on biodiversity, because some plants like the excess nitrogen, and others don't. Is that effect structural, or would the nature over time restore itself, and biodiversity returns?
 
Phil Stevens
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I think that they need to clarify just what is being released. I suspect that there may be some confusion between N2O, which is a gas emitted from soils due to fertiliser overuse and animal urine, and nitrates, which are soluble in water and can be a problem if you have too much in your soil.
 
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I suspect they're talking about nitrates in the soil, and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere.  Not 'nitrogen' as such.
 
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