State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Packard Foundation Supports Sustainable Food Production

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation continued to support the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), with grants totaling over a half million dollars, to further progress on optimizing nitrogen’s beneficial role in sustainable food production while minimizing nitrogen’s negative effects on human health and the environment resulting from food and energy production.

Maize field in Malawi, Africa. Photo by Dr. Ray Weil
Maize field in Malawi, Africa. Photo by Dr. Ray Weil

The International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) is housed at the Earth Institute and led by Senior Research Scientist Dr. Cheryl Palm. Palm, together with a committee of scientists from around the globe, works to access and predict changes in the nitrogen cycle and its effects at the regional and global level and bring awareness to and inform decision makers about solutions to the problem of nitrogen imbalance.

Nitrogen is one of the five major chemical elements necessary for life. As the earth becomes more and more developed, humans are dramatically altering the earth’s nitrogen balance through agriculture cultivation, burning fossil fuels and other industrial processes.  This imbalance has resulted in ozone depletion, harmful water blooms in coastal ecosystems and acidification of forests, soils, and freshwater streams and lakes as well as loss of biodiversity around the world. When in balance, nitrogen in the air, water and soil allows ecosystems and human life to thrive.

The International Nitrogen Initiative is specifically trying to find solutions to the nitrogen paradox. The paradox is this—as mentioned above, life needs nitrogen to survive. However, most living organisms use nitrogen in reactive forms, not the molecular form that is naturally most abundant. While human production of the reactive form will speed up and improve living organisms such as the plants and animals we need to survive, an imbalance of this nitrogen results in disruptions to all of earth’s ecosystems. Today, approximately 40 percent of the world’s population is fed by crops grown with fertilizer that contains human-induced forms of reactive nitrogen. So while nitrogen is needed to feed the world, this imbalance is highly damaging and dangerous to a sustainable future.

The Packard Foundation’s Conservation and Science Program is committed to finding paths for human progress that protect and restore the ecological systems upon which all life depends and has supported the Earth Institute and the INI since 2008.

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