Students in sunset dock at lake Saimaa in LUT University
Created 18.11.2021
Updated 4.5.2022

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In the northern hemisphere, nutrient runoffs from agricultural land to water bodies are enormous. Meanwhile, developing countries in the southern hemisphere are sorely lacking nutrients for agriculture. Reserves of food-production nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen have been depleted in the local soil, and even manure is combusted because no other energy sources exist for preparing food.

Professor Helena Kahiluoto, a sustainability scientist at LUT University, has studied the fair distribution of nutrients.

"Excess nutrients in agricultural land and waters in Northern and Central Europe reduce biodiversity and increase the release of greenhouse gases, whereas returning nutrients to degraded soil increases crop growth and carbon in soil," Kahiluoto outlines.

Tackling nutrient loss would also promote human rights and reduce conflicts, as hunger would no longer induce riots or drive people to risk their lives to access Europe.

One Earth Currency takes past and present into account

Kahiluoto says that nutrients could be recycled more efficiently and divided more fairly among nations. Ongoing technological developments provide the tools for this. Companies could address the matter immediately, but the limited solvency of countries in need of nutrients poses obstacles.

In a study recently released in the journal Nature Food, Kahiluoto and her co-authors introduce the concept of a One Earth Currency. It represents a market-driven but fair system where rights to use nutrients would be allocated based on the countries' nutrient use history, and the allocation would also give food consumers an equal footing.

"Emission trading between countries and residents would be based on the fair allocation of nutrient rights. The implementation of the system would require producers, retailers, brokers and consumers. Nutrient rights trading could start out as a collaborative pilot between companies or public sector actors, such as Finland and one of its partner countries for development cooperation. The market-led mechanism would be more cost efficient than public regulation and would encourage more innovations," Kahiluoto relates.

The currency could be governed by, for instance, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The system would favour the processing of nutrients for reuse, and it would set a cap for virgin nutrients, making their use expensive.

In areas with a nutrient surplus, such as Europe, the benefits would include improved water quality, reversed nature loss and new business opportunities – also for farmers.

"A farmer's yield would not necessarily decrease if the local circular economy became more efficient as well. Waters, biodiversity and the climate benefit from processing surplus nutrients for export," the professor sums up.

Global nutrient balance by 2050?

Nutrients can be captured from manure, nutrient-rich near-bottom water layers of coastal areas and lakes, and sewage sludge.

Nutrient loading in the bottom sediments of seas and lakes is in many cases larger than nutrient flows from cultivated land. It has been assessed that if nutrient runoffs to the Baltic Sea were fully prevented, it would still take over a century for the sea to return to its pre-industrial state. In lakes in areas with agriculture, the process has been estimated to take up to a thousand years," Kahiluoto says.

Professor Helena KahiluotoAccording to researchers, a planet-bound currency would be an example of a fair and sustainable economic system that should be tested quickly. A good starting point would be food – a basic need.

"It would be a transformation with many winners and few losers. Nutrients could be taken from where they exist in excess to where there is a shortage. A balance could be reached by 2050."

Kahiluoto adds that the system would require technological solutions, such as LUT University's expertise in separating and recovering nutrients from by-products and near-bottom water and processing them into a transportable form. Applications of blockchain technology for global trading of rights are also required, and preconditions to perceived fairness across the intertwined global community should be better understood.

"A global sharing and circular economy for nutrients offers pioneers a business opportunity and wealthy countries a possibility to invest in safety and stability. We are proud to introduce a One Earth Currency of nutrients as an example of fair sustainable development that would tie the economy to planetary boundaries," Kahiluoto concludes.

Read the reseach article here.

Planetary boundaries:

Human actions can disturb the Earth's ecosystem and increase the risk of sudden and irreversible environmental changes, such as water pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change. These disturbances take place much before we run out of resources. We cannot use up all of our fossil sources of energy without critical changes first occurring in the climate. The same applies to nutrients: the ecosystem will be out of balance long before the reserves run out.

The amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the atmosphere and soil that are transformed into forms that eutrophicate waters and reduce biodiversity significantly exceed the Earth's carrying capacity. People must adapt their actions to preserve the Earth's operations to ensure sufficient stability for humanity.

Source: Helena Kahiluoto,