‘Excess nutrients threat to environment’

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.90 Published online 17 July 2016

Ramachandran Ramesh is the first Indian scientist appointed chairman of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) created six years ago by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to address the challenge of producing more food and energy with less pollution. Ramesh, director of the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management in India's Ministry of Environment & Forests, took charge on July 1, 2016. He speaks to Nature India about his vision for GPNM.

Ramachandran Ramesh
NI. What does nutrient management mean and why is it necessary?

RR. Nitrogen and phosphorous are two key nutrients vital for plant growth and food production. But excess nutrients – released from the use of N-fertilizers and burning of fossil fuels – reach the aquatic systems causing eutrophication, algal blooms and fish kills – to name a few – and also pollute the air and soil with consequences for climate change and biodiversity. These have local, regional and global ramifications. Balancing food security and environmental quality is one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity today. This requires effective nutrient management. 

NI. What do you expect to achieve during your term as the GPNM chairman?

RR. Globally, there is a gross disconnect between the developed and the developing world in the level of understanding of nutrient management and nutrient use efficiency. In order to bridge this gap, a vision that spans the basic human needs – food, water, health and safe environment – is needed. It also requires a fundamental change in research and policy outlook. Lab studies need to be conveyed both to the community and the policy makers.Additional avenues to expand the known nutrient management options should be explored to provide low-cost technological solutions that can easily be adopted even by small farmers of the poorest of nations. I would like to use this ‘vision’ as a basis of dialogues among GPNM partners to define an agenda for action that will usher in the transition to a green economy with sustainable development and poverty eradication. 

NI. What in your view are nutrient challenges specific to India? 

RR. Two immediate challenges are: prevention of eutrophication and fish kills resulting from excessive inputs of nitrogen and phosphorous to the river and coastal systems; and improving nitrogen use efficiency in cropping systems. Also requiring attention is the emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, as a result of increased fertilizer input in agriculture. 

NI. How do you rate India compared to the developed world in respect of nutrient management? 

RR. Globally, India ranks second, next to China, in both production and consumption of fertilizers. India has evolved an integrated nutrient management programme through balanced use of chemical fertilizers in conjunction with organic manures and bio-fertilizers. Efforts are also being made to reduce excess nitrogen input into rivers and coastal waters through the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 2011. Integrated Water Resource Management (addressing nutrient pollution); Integrated Coastal Zone Management (addressing land based activities); and Integrated Conservation Management (to conserve natural resources) are new schemes I recommend for India. 

NI. What is the goal of GPNM?

RR. The GPNM is a global platform to steer dialogues and actions at the global and regional levels to promote sustainable nutrient management to ensure food security while maintaining the integrity of the most productive areas of the marine environment.

NI. What has GPNM accomplished so far?

RR. It has successfully positioned nutrient issues as part of the international sustainable development agenda. It mainstreamed global knowledge of nutrient management policies, practices and their impacts on water quality, soil health and human wellbeing through publication of “Our Nutrient World” report in February 2013. The inclusion of nutrient management in the most significant UNEP publication is considered a clear signal that it is being recognised globally as an issue warranting attention. 

NI. What will be your strategy as the chair of GPNM? 

RR. Recycling Nitrogen and Phosphorus from waste water systems and reducing land-based inputs to the coastal and marine systems will be key elements of the strategy that will also aim at improving nutrient use efficiency in crop and animal production.