Human activity has greatly altered the nitrogen cycle on Earth over the past few decades, with major effects on both human health and the ecological functioning of natural ecosystems, particularly coastal marine systems where nitrogen is now the largest pollution problem. Agriculture is the largest driver of this change, with pollution from fossil-fuel combustion being a smaller but still significant driver globally. Much of the nitrogen pollution from agriculture derives from animal-production systems, both as a direct result of nitrogen leakage to the atmosphere and waters from these systems, and from the demand for increased crop production that these animal-production systems demand. Wastewater from urban centers is also a significant component of the nitrogen problem, contributing 12% of the nitrogen pollution in rivers in the US, 25% in Europe, and 33% in China. Wastewater sources dominate the inputs of nitrogen to some coastal ecosystems, but globally and in most regions the non-point sources are larger. Many technical solutions to reducing nitrogen pollution exist, so to some extent the current problem reflects policy and political failures. Nonetheless, further technical solutions can and should be developed. These should recognize the significantly greater mobility of nitrogen than phosphorus in the environment.

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