The nitrogen balancing act: Tracking the environmental performance of food production

Farmers, food supply-chain entities, and policymakers need a simple but robust indicator to demonstrate progress toward reducing nitrogen pollution associated with food production. We show that nitrogen balance—the difference between nitrogen inputs and nitrogen outputs in an agricultural production system—is a robust measure of nitrogen losses that is simple to calculate, easily understood, and based on readily available farm data. Nitrogen balance provides farmers with a means of demonstrating to an increasingly concerned public that they are succeeding in reducing nitrogen losses while also improving the overall sustainability of their farming operation. Likewise, supply-chain companies and policymakers can use nitrogen balance to track progress toward sustainability goals. We describe the value of nitrogen balance in translating environmental targets into actionable goals for farmers and illustrate the potential roles of science, policy, and agricultural support networks in helping farmers achieve them.

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