Reducing nitrogen pollution from worldwide croplands is a "grand challenge" according to a group of international researchers who published a study in Nature detailing a dozen urgently required modifications.

However, better management of nitrogen-rich fertilizers through crop rotation, use optimization, and other approaches can result in significant environmental and health benefits.

The widespread use of chemical fertilizers has contributed to the fourfold increase in human population over the last century, and will be critical in feeding 10 billion people by 2050.

But the Green Revolution's enormous crops have come at a terrible cost.

Today, more than half of the nitrogen in fertilizers leaches into the air and water, causing fatal pollution, soil acidification, climate change, ozone depletion, and biodiversity loss.

"Given the multiple health, climate, and environmental impacts of reactive nitrogen, it has to be reduced in all the mediums such as air and water," lead author Baojing Gu, a professor at Zhejiang University, explained.

He said that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.

Nitrogen makes up around 80% of the Earth's atmosphere, but in a gaseous form (N2) that most species don't directly need.

Through biological nitrogen fixation, it is converted into ammonia and made accessible to plants by soil or plant-dwelling bacteria. Every year, this process sends over 200 million tons of nitrogen into the land and oceans.

The usage of some 120 million tons of chemical fertilizer annually, however, has severely unbalanced this natural "nitrogen cycle" the report claims.

Less than half of that input is actually absorbed by plants; the remainder seeps into the environment and leads to a number of issues.

Gu and his colleagues examined over 1,500 field observations from croplands around the world and identified 11 critical techniques to reduce nitrogen losses while increasing crop yields.

Crop rotation is one such strategy, in which a variety of crops are grown on the same piece of land to optimize the movement of nutrients in the soil.

They discovered that the advantages of reducing agricultural nitrogen pollution outweigh the implementation costs of around $34 billion.

However, the suggested action could harm the fight against climate change.

"Basically, the impact of nitrogen management on climate change is neutral, or slightly damages the climate due to the reduction of carbon sequestration in ecosystems," Gu told AFP.

Without the support of robust government policies, many smallholder farmers would not be able to afford the upfront costs associated with modern nitrogen management, despite their enormous benefits.

An advanced nitrogen management strategy might be subsidized by a nitrogen credit system, which would also profit from the increased food supply and less nitrogen pollution.

A financial budget might be established to start this beneficial cycle by charging polluting items and activities, food consumers, businesses that use agriculture for commercial food production, or businesses that employ farming to produce food.