Virtual Nitrogen Losses from Organic Food Production
Abstract:Reactive nitrogen (Nr) is necessary for crop and animal production, but when it is lost to the environment, it creates a cascade of detrimental environmental impacts. The nitrogen challenge is to maximize the food production benefits of Nr, while minimizing losses to the environment.
The first nitrogen footprint tool was created in 2012 to help consumers learn about the Nr losses to the environment that result from an individual’s lifestyle choices. The nitrogen lost during food production was estimated with virtual nitrogen factors (VNFs) that quantify the amount of nitrogen lost to the environment per unit nitrogen consumed. Alternative agricultural systems, such as USDA certified organic farms, utilize practices that diverge from conventional production. In order to evaluate the potential sustainability of these alternative agricultural systems, our team calculated VNFs that reflect organic production.
Initial data indicate that VNFs for organic grains and organic starchy roots are comparable to, but slightly higher than conventional (+10% and +20% respectively). In contrast, the VNF for organic vegetables is significantly higher (+90%) and the VNF for organic legumes is significantly lower (-90%). Initial data on organic meat production shows that organic poultry and organic pigmeat are comparable to conventional production (both <5% difference), but that the organic beef VNF is significantly higher (+30%).
These data show that in some cases organic and conventional production are comparable in terms of nitrogen efficiency. However, since conventional production relies heavily on the creation of new reactive nitrogen (Haber-Bosch, biological nitrogen fixation) and organic production primarily utilizes already existing reactive nitrogen (manure, crop residue, compost), the data also show that organic production contributes less new reactive nitrogen to the environment than conventional production (approximately 70% less).
Therefore, we conclude that on a local scale, nitrogen losses from organic production are comparable to conventional production, but that organic production introduces less new reactive nitrogen to the global pool.