Britain's Nitrogen Timebomb and Possible Management Approaches

by BrentES on November 10, 2017 - 7:08pm

Brent Eicher-Sodo

GEOG 3110

Friday November 10, 2017

Britain’s Nitrogen Timebomb


                Society as it exists today is dependant upon agriculture for food, with an ever-increasing demand due to global population increases. To make up for nutrient deficiencies as fertile land is depleted, fertilizers are applied in large quantities. Contained within fertilizers is nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth. As the fertilizers are water soluble, they eventually leech down into the ground surrounding agricultural land where they are stored for years. After several decades the nitrates seep down into the water table where they cause a host of management issues and expensive cleanup. The article “Scale of 'nitrate timebomb' revealed” by Roger Harrabin highlights how Britain is facing related to their “nitrogen timebomb”. As Britain is in the process of leaving the European Union, they are performing environmental assessments to get an idea of future environmental risks. One of the issues identified pertains to the effects of an influx of massive amounts of nitrogen into the water table. However, it may be some time before the nitrogen is released into the water table as it must first travel down through the ground, in a phenomenon known as “lag time”. This is an issue even where legislation been employed to limit the amount of fertilizer use.

                The nitrogen timebomb is a worldwide issue, but affects developed countries the most as farmers are able to afford mass amounts of synthetic fertilizer. In many countries there is legislation in place to prevent eutrophication. This traditional approach has had success in the past with limiting eutrophication in surface water but little consideration has been paid to the nitrogen already in the ground. It is impossible to remove this nitrogen as that would require the removal and storage of tonnes of material that can not be replaced. With elimination out of the question, the only remaining option is mitigation and prevention of future build up of nitrates. To accomplish this there are several routes that can be explored. In the past, “command and control” strategies were used to mitigate environmental issues. This strategy places immense trust in the government to make the correct decisions for management and does not take citizens opinions into account. In recent years top down regulation has been shown to be unsuccessful and new approaches are being explored. Market based controls have been effective in other industries at preserving environmental integrity. These approaches seek to use public pressure to direct the behaviour of producers as well as integrating public knowledge into the decision-making processes. If a labelling scheme were developed to show the public which good were produced with low external nitrogen inputs, future build up of nitrogen could be mitigated. People could also provide information on areas of concern and possibly mitigation measures in a process that would help eliminate conflict and ensure there is trust in the government if properly integrated.

                The water tables in Britain may already be past the point of no return, as over one third of tested sites in Britain exceeded the 50 milligrams of nitrogen per litre limit imposed by European Union law (Wang et al, 2012). At the time of publishing, it was predicted that up to 60 percent of Britain’s drinking water will fail to achieve “good” status (2012). Since the 1970’s there has been strict legislation across the European Union but the build up of nitrates was still allowed to take place (2012). In fact, the release could be prolonged for decades years in Britain as nitrogen leeches through the rocks. These statistics are evidence of the failure of traditional mitigation methods and a new approach is required. If this approach can be implemented worldwide, it may be possible to prevent this issue in other nations.


Harrabin, Roger (2017, November), Scale of 'nitrate timebomb' revealed. BBC. Retrieved on November 10, 2017 from:

Wang, L., Stuart, M. E., Bloomfield, J. P., Butcher, A. S., Gooddy, D. C., McKenzie, A. A., Lewis, M. A. and Williams, A. T. (2012), Prediction of the arrival of peak nitrate concentrations at the water table at the regional scale in Great Britain. Hydrol. Process., 26: 226–239. doi:10.1002/hyp.8164