Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Nitrogen narratives in Nairobi – confessions of a reluctant blogger

Professor Mark Sutton from CEH has been in Nairobi, Kenya, this week at the United Nations Environment Programme Governing Council. Here he reports back on experiencing life at the sharp end of the science-policy debate.

Here you find a reluctant blogger. I am currently writing this late at night, after a day full of meeting people of so many nations, many disciplines and many roles.

Half the day has been spent talking - trying to better understand what makes people tick, understanding why they hold their positions. Half the day has been spent talking to press colleagues, and lining up interviews with various newspapers, radio and TV channels - often by mobile phone. Not all of these interviews will come off, but a fraction will, and through them we can reach a much wider audience than our scientific papers and reports. The other half of the day has been spent reading and writing emails, trying to keep up with everything that is going past. (All of this would not have been possible without the great support from UNEP colleagues in DEPI, DCPI and DEWA divisions).

As you can see my maths does not add up –  but you hopefully get the right impression.

In fact impressions are everything here. As a scientist one can spend a long time designing experiments, collecting and interpreting data - refining the message for a scientific audience. But here I am, at the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi. 1000 delegates have joined together to address environmental issues, to review the UNEP programme of work, and even make a few decisions about how to manage the planet's environment better.

So, what about making impressions. My point is that the delegates present here are nothing like a scientific audience. Peer review, statistics, lovely data series, and even new conceptual paradigms, don’t count for much around here. As several people here have commented, by far the strongest thing is "the narrative". Yes, it's great to have the scientific data and the evidence in the background [and really it is VERY important!]. But the thing that grabs their attention is a good story, where we simplify our science to its barest essence, turning complexity into something that everyone can understand.

This seems to be my job for the week. I am here to launch a report, "Our Nutrient World", commissioned by UNEP. It's about "the challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution". We need nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, to make crops grow and feed the world. The problem is that most of these nutrients leak out to the environment, weaving a web of air, water and soil pollution, contributing to climate change and threatening biodiversity. So let's manage nutrients better, let's think about a suitable goal, and let's get people talking.

In fact we have 10 key actions in our pack of options, from farming management techniques and sewage treatment to the ambition to recapture NOx (nitrogen oxides) into useful products.

But not many people want to talk about smart manure spreading. So I focus on what people do want to talk about. And that is food. In a way it's their call.

Throughout the week I’ve been highlighting the fact that 80% of the harvested nitrogen in the world ends up feeding livestock rather than people, that Europeans eat 70% more protein than needed for a healthy diet, and that, for many of us on the planet, we live in a world of "food luxury" rather than struggling to maintain a minimum "food security".

It’s a great discussion for dinner and just about anywhere you like. And before you know it, the horse-meat scandal has become linked up with nutrient management. People are thinking about their food choices. We have the demitarian option on the table, and the journalists and radio producers want to hear about it.

So it seems somewhat ironic when a lunchtime radio presenter says that: surely I am speaking to the wrong audience. Surely the team from "Our Nutrient World" should instead have been making recommendations to farmers...

And, of course we are.  But if we had only done that, then no one would have been listening. The food debate has given nitrogen an opening - and a chance to explain what we can do about this pan-dimensional problem.

It’s a challenge that crosses all global change issues. We need nitrogen, but we need to manage it better. And really: every citizen needs to know nitrogen. Because until they do, the politicians will not be empowered to make decisions, and start taking the local, national and intergovernmental conversation to the next stage.

Additional information

Prof. Mark Sutton is the lead author on Our Nutrient World - The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. The report is a global overview of nutrient management and was published on 18 February 2013.

Mark was also lead researcher on the European Nitrogen Assessment published in April 2011.

UNEP 1st Universal Session of the Governing Council / Global Ministerial Forum, Nairobi, 18-22 Feb 2013

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