The Integrated Nitrogen Studies in Africa (INSA) project seeks to unpack and analyze the different aspects of the nitrogen budget in Africa, bringing expertise from different fields in the environmental and social sciences through a network of scientists from Europe and Africa.
Nitrogen is one of the essential nutrients for plant growth and food production at the global scale. However, an imbalance appears between “too much” and “too little” nitrogen supplied regions in the world, and this paradox of “low nitrogen” regions vs “high nitrogen” is specifically valid at the scale of Africa. The use of too much nitrogen in intensive agricultural production systems and the production of reactive nitrogen from combustion processes has already led to harmful effects on air and water quality in European, North American or South and East Asian ecosystems. This has led to damages to ecosystems and significant adverse effects on public health. In contrast agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is struggling with low nitrogen supplies to crops and insufficient yields to feed its growing population. These processes continuously perpetuate food insecurity in terms of supply and quality on the one hand, and lead to environmental pollution on the other hand. As it stands, the supply of nitrogen in Africa is insufficient to combat food security, however increasing nitrogen supply without increasing (or ideally with decreasing) emissions of pollutants remains an important societal challenge. This dilemma is clearly stated in the “Melbourne Declaration on Responsible Nitrogen Management for a Sustainable Future” (Dec 2016), “Nitrogen management should strive to simultaneously improve the efficiency of nitrogen use, increase farm productivity, enhance soil health, conserve resources and reduce losses of reactive nitrogen to the environment”.
To tackle this challenge, INSA aims to provide estimates of nitrogen transfers within the different ecosystems found in Africa and drive the development of a preliminary nitrogen assessment in Africa. Although, international networks of scientists already exist, for the first time, INSA will seek to connect the activities in multidisciplinary teams focused on different aspects of the nitrogen cycle in Africa. The project brings together scientists from Europe and Africa working on ecology, atmospheric chemistry, water quality, soil science, biogeochemistry, agriculture and livestock. The multi and inter-disciplinary competences of the research teams involved in INSA will help in developing innovative aspects of research on targeted questions, to create and feed a dialogue between different communities of researchers, and transfer information and results to decision makers and the public. The project also has a strong educational component targeting schools, universities and the general public. This involves the development of educational materials and the dissemination of information on the sustainable use of nitrogen in our environment as the key action to mitigate harmful societal impact while ensuring food security.