Scientists behind the research said nitrogen was needed as fertiliser to help feed a growing world population – but suggested that eating less meat could reduce the amount of pollution caused by agriculture.
The report also suggests that as 60 per cent of costs of the nitrogen damage stems from fossil fuels burnt for energy generation and transport, more energy-efficient homes and cutting long-distance travel could also help tackle the problem.
More efficient use of fertilisers in food production is also needed, the report said. However, the researchers stopped short of calling for a fertiliser tax to reduce the use of nitrogen in agriculture.
The chief scientist at the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Prof Bob Watson, who welcomed the first assessment of the Europe-wide impacts of nitrogen, warned that higher costs as a result of a tax would be passed onto consumers.
The report by 200 experts from 21 countries warns that in Europe, the costs of nitrogen pollution on air, soils, water, increased greenhouse gases and damage to wildlife was between 70 billion euros and 320 billion euros a year (£62bn-£282bn).
The cost works out at between £130 and £650 a year for everyone in Europe.
Nitrogen contributes to air pollution that causes respiratory problems such as asthma and cancers in people and reduces life expectancy by six months across much of Europe.
Nitrates in water are bad for human health and damage wildlife including fish stocks. Nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas.
The environmental effects of nitrogen were estimated at 25 billion euro to 145 billion euros (£22bn-£128bn), compared with the 25 billion euros to 130 billion euros (£22bn-£115bn) benefits to agriculture fertilisers deliver.
Much of the nitrogen pollution from agricultural production is linked to meat and dairy farming, as the crops needed to feed them are grown with the help of fertilisers.
Dr Mark Sutton, of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: “The amount of livestock we choose to have is critical in determining the scale of impacts. The amount of animal protein we choose to eat is critical.”
Dr Sutton added that the environmental impact of livestock was not limited to the greenhouse gases given out by cows, with nitrogen used to grow crops to feed all farm animals also having an impact.
And in Europe, people were currently eating 70 per cent more meat and dairy products than they needed for a healthy diet.
He said the report was not suggesting people become vegetarian, but they could cut down on meat – a “demitarian” diet – and that the conference to launch the study this week in Edinburgh would be serving half portions of meat.
Prof Watson said of the report: “Nitrogen is absolutely essential for human well-being. The challenge is how do we capture the benefits of nitrogen and minimise the impacts.”
He said that in the UK nitrous oxides had been reduced by 60 per cent since 1990 and there had been a reduction in the use of nitrogen fertilisers of nearly a fifth since 1998.
“Things are going in the right direction, but we do need to move faster to avoid this environmental damage,” he warned.
The researchers said that the cost of putting in measures to tackle the problems of nitrogen pollution would be outweighed by the financial benefits the solutions would reap.