The Sustainable Food Trust welcomes the Government’s Clean Air Strategy, but is calling for greater action to address one of the less well known causes of air pollution, ammonia emissions from nitrogen fertiliser, both directly and indirectly via intensive livestock production.

Until now, the impact of agriculture on air quality has been largely overlooked. In the UK, farming accounts for approximately 80% of all ammonia emissions. A quarter of this comes from the ammonia lost to the atmosphere when nitrogen fertiliser is made and spread on farmland. The use of high protein feeds in intensive dairy, pig and poultry production, most of which can be traced back to artificial nitrogen-based fertilisers, make up the rest.

When ammonia drifts over industrial regions, it combines with other pollutants to form solid microscopic particles known as particulate matter that can stick in fine lung tissues, contributing to cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Partly as a result, more than 40 towns and cities in the UK are at, or exceeding, air pollution limits set by the World Health Organization.

Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to air pollution due to the 120 million tonnes of artificial nitrogen fertiliser used globally every year. Overuse of nitrogen fertiliser also damages soil health and has contributed to soil degradation, with one third of the planet’s farmland soils now classified as severely degraded.

Environmental nitrogen enrichment is also a major cause of biodiversity loss. Approximately half of all nitrogen fertiliser currently applied to farmland is not taken up by plants but is instead lost to the air and to water. It has been estimated by the Stockholm Resilience Centre that that the excessive use of nitrogen fertiliser has caused reactive nitrogen in the environment to exceed safe planetary levels by 350%.

While the Government’s new Clean Air Strategy is a positive first step, more will need to be done if we want to reverse the environmental and public health damage caused by decades of bad practices. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way that we produce food and the wider adoption of agroecological farming practices. For example, crop rotations that use forage legumes (such as clover) must be supported in order to build the soil’s natural nitrogen levels.

Richard Young, Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust, said, “The Sustainable Food Trust welcomes the Government’s Clean Air Strategy but feels that greater action is needed to address the issue of ammonia, a major component of air pollution, which mostly comes from the agricultural sector. In order to make real headway in tackling the air pollution crisis, we need a fundamental change in the way we produce food, moving away from heavy reliance on nitrogen fertiliser towards mixed farm systems which utilise forage legumes, such as clover, to rebuild the soil’s natural nitrogen levels. Future ‘public goods’ funding should be used to help shift farming systems in this more sustainable direction.”

The Sustainable Food Trust’s response to the Government’s consultation on the Clean Air Strategy is available here:


For further information contact:

Honor Eldridge – Head of Policy


Photograph: David Holt

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