Laughing gas is no laughing matter for the climate and our planet.

Laughing gas is no laughing matter for the climate and our planet.

So here is something that many of us have missed. Laughing gas, or Nitrous oxide, is 300 x more effective at warming the planet than CO2, and it lasts for over 100 years. Laughing gas is being increasingly leached to the atmosphere through nitrogen fertilisation in food production, but also devastating our coastal zones by over fertilisation on land that leaches into the sea. The irony of this little appreciated global pollution issue is that we are approaching half of all of this nitrogen fertiliser being made synthetically with fossil fueled energy, to support half of the worlds population in food! Then we throw it away as excess and create havoc in our oceans and our atmosphere.

So where does the nitrogen come from?

In Germany in 1908, Haber and Bosch made catching nitrogen gas out of the atmosphere, and turning it into ammonia, a reality. This was the beginning of the modern agricultural revolution. Synthetic nitrogen production became the biggest game changing technology in mass producing food.

Nitrogen and other nutrient pollution is not broadly understood as a key threat to the environment and our planet, but is more familiar as the inconvenient and unsightly toxic algal blooms! The algae however, are only a visible symptom of the problem; not the problem itself. Green tides are actually nitrogen tides, as algae cannot bloom without the nutrients.

It is estimated that 50% of all humans exist because of nitrogen fertilizers. Today we are pulling out about 100 Million tonnes of nitrogen from the atmosphere for fertilizer each year! In fact, Australia imports 1,000,000 tonnes of nitrogen each year.

nitrogen on land

A lot of this nitrogen is absorbed, as intended, into crops. These crops are either food for humans or for animals, which gets excreted and goes back into soils or down the drain to the ocean. However, globally, up to two thirds of this fertilizer is not used by crops or animal production, and is lost in the system as run off to our lakes, rivers and oceans! This means we are fertilising land and oceans systems with a lot more nitrogen than we used to, as it used to sit up in the air. So we really need to stop blaming the algae for the blooms; we are feeding them! The algae and seaweed are cleaning up the mess!

What a waste of muscle-building molecules?

Don’t get me wrong, nitrogen is a wonderful thing for us. Nitrogen is that special element that makes proteins and DNA stand out from the crowd. If you didn’t read our protein blog and why it is so important to muscle and wound healing processes, then catch up here. However, we need nitrogen in the form of amino acids and organic molecules that are made first by algae, seaweed and plants, and sometimes transferred through to animal food products. We cannot eat the form that is fertilizing the coastline, so we have effectively wasted the building ingredients of our muscles, and it is obviously damaging coastlines around the world.

Algae blooms and coastal dead zones?

It is a bit of a misnomer that algae blooms strip oxygen out of the water, because they don’t do so directly. Mostly algae and seaweeds are the creators of the oxygen on our planet and the catchers of carbon. However, if blooms occur that are too big to be eaten up in the food chain while they are alive, then this big seaweed or algae mass can fall to the bottom and start to rot. That rotting process then consumes oxygen, and the warming waters under climate change make that worse.

When oxygen consuming processes are concentrated along the coastline, it creates a very unbalanced and concentrated impact in our coastal ecosystems. This is why marine dead zones are appearing. Losing this nitrogen to the coastal zone is a waste for us and a burden on the environment.

coastal deadzones

World Ocean Atlas 2009

Corals don’t like lots of nitrogen

There are major global ecosystem threats from nitrogen pollution, and one close to home includes the threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Climate change, ocean warming, crown of thorns starfish and acidification are all well understood threats to the Great Barrier Reef, but nutrient pollution is one of the big ones. Corals do not like high nutrient loads, and it is a delicate balance between corals and photosynthetic organisms that allows for the clear tropical reef ecosystem to survive. Disrupting this balance through uncontained nutrient sources along  the coastline is a direct impact from land activities in Australia.

A 400 year clean up job in the Baltic Sea

In the past century there have been a number of marine ecosystem collapses; what ecologists call regime change. This is in large part due to nitrogen loads. The Baltic Sea in the Nordic countries for example, has shifted far away from the once rich cod fishery, to more of a slurry of microalgae and plankton, with some herring for good measure. Fishing down the big fish and adding feed at the bottom of the food chain will do this. At the current rate of nitrogen reduction efforts it will take up to 400 years to reverse the Baltic Sea regime change. It could be done within a century, but efforts to reduce nitrogen loading would need to be quadrupled! Let's be warned about not doing the same thing to other ecosystems.

Nitrogen pollution in the atmosphere

When we add nitrogen into agricultural systems, a lot of the wastage happens in the form of denitrification, or losing nitrogen to the atmosphere. However, in this flow, nitrogen is returned in the form of nitrous oxide; or what we know at the dentist chair as laughing gas. This gas is about 300x worse at warming the atmosphere, and it lasts there for over 100 years. Effectively our agricultural systems are pulling a climate safe gas out of the atmosphere and turning it into a very resistant and effective greenhouse gas that will not go away in our lifetime.

Seaweed to the rescue – again.

Capturing wasted nitrogen streams is what we do at PhycoHealth. We turn digested nitrogen from a crop processing facility back into dissolved nitrogen and capture that from seawater with our seaweed. Effectively, we are more than doubling the food production per nitrogen. Not only that, this nitrogen is no longer converted to nitrous oxide greenhouse gas, AND fertiliser manufacture is not needed to grow this food – a triple whammy effect by choosing seaweed in your diet. 

What other foods are nitrogen efficient?

The simple answer is legumes. Eating beans, peas and lentils doesn’t require a lot of nitrogen fertilizer, because these plants are special in that they can capture nitrogen from the atmosphere. Seaweeds and algae are very efficient nitrogen users, as they can take it up directly into all cells from water. But certain seaweeds are better than others at this, and not all seaweeds can be eaten in high doses. Plant-based diets in general consume far less nitrogen that animal proteins, especially, meat products.

Animal food production uses 50% of the nitrogen produced in the world, but only delivers 17% of the global calories. Meat is a very inefficient form of nitrogen use, and global shifts to increasing plant-based proteins and more efficient capture of wasted animal protein and nitrogen will be important in the future. Once again, this does not mean we need to stop eating meat, we simply don’t need as much as we are currently eating. 

nitrogen and protein in food

What is a nitrogen efficient meal to cook that is healthy and delicious?

For a nitrogen friendly meal, rich in protein, all amino acids, trace elements and Omega-3, I would have to say that Terra Mare Salad with Phukka would be one of the most nitrogen friendly dishes, as featured by Dr. Clare Bailey in her Clever Guts Diet Recipe Book. Good for you gut! Good for your protein! Good for the nitrogen flows on our planet!

Terra Mare Salad with Phukka has chickpeas that can sequester about 120kg of nitrogen per hectare. This means we don’t have to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer to produce it, and it will put nitrogen into the soil for the next round of crops that can’t capture nitrogen from the air. It also has our seaweed which captures lost nitrogen from crop processing and grows on just 2% of the area it would take to grow other crops.

Take a step towards a nitrogen efficient diet with 10% seaweed and get healthy and taste deliciousness at the same time.