Food production and consumption in Germany: N flows and N emissions

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During the past four decades the authors perceive that an increasing non-sustainability (Disintegration) within the agriculture, human nutrition, waste management complex has occurred both in Germany and the European Union. Compared to the basic needs of the population for nutritive energy, fat and protein, we estimate that the production and consumption of food and feed is more than 50% higher than necessary. Using nitrogen (N) input into German agriculture in 1991/92 as an example, we estimated that the N input of 191 kg ha−1 was 2 to 3 times too high. This high N input resulted in the net biomass production of 45 kg ha−1, a 25% efficiency. This inefficiency causes emissions of reactive N and other nutrient compounds into the hydrosphere and atmosphere that were 2 to 8 times too high. For example the contributions of agriculture to the total annual N2O-N emissions of Germany (during 1990–1992), Europe (1990) and of the world (1989) were 110, 691 Gg and 6.7 Tg or 52, 62 and 41%, respectively. The authors demonstrate that emissions of N and P from Germany and EU waste water management systems are also higher than necessary because nutrient recycling is not practiced extensively. Excessive food production and consumption has made the agriculture/human nutrition/waste and waste water complex, like the energy/transportation complex, a main cause of new transboundary environmental damage such as soil and water acidification, hypertrophication of near-natural terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and climate change.

We propose that a sustainable food production/consumption system can be developed that is based both on need-oriented production and consumption with no net exports and on recovery, recycling and more efficient use of nutrients. Using N as an example, the authors show which short and long term action aims must be set and realized by the year 2015, to meet environmental, economical and social sustainability requisites. The suggested, assumed sustainable N balance for German agriculture is characterized by a critical annual input and surplus maximum of 80 and 45 kg N ha−1 respectively, which should almost double biomass production efficiency for N utilization. This estimate is based on reducing animal stocking rates to 0.5 gross weight unit ha−1 to attain no net mineralization or immobilization of N in the soil.

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