Too much or never enough
Although nitrogen has helped in contributing to human dietary needs, there are still large areas of the world — namely sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia — that remain short of the amounts they need to achieve food and nutritional security.
Conversely, synthetic nitrogen has become increasingly crucial in today’s intensive agricultural systems, but nearly half of the fertilizer nitrogen applied on farms leaks into the surrounding environment. It is possible that we have now transgressed the sustainable planetary boundary for nitrogen, and this could have devasting consequences.
Given this conflicting dual role this compound plays in agricultural systems and the environment — both positive and negative — the nitrogen challenge is highly relevant across most of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations.