Researchers have for the first time calculated Australia's contribution to the environmental and health problem of nitrogen pollution.
Protein is a key element for good health but Australia's appetite for meat could be killing us.
Researchers have for the first time calculated Australia's contribution to the growing global environmental and health problem of nitrogen pollution, largely driven by food production and in particular beef production.
Nitrogen is an essential building block for life and there was a dramatic increase in the use of nitrogen fertilisers within the agriculture industry after World War II.
But an excess of this life-giving chemical element can have a destructive effect on the environment and human health, say scientists.
Emissions from nitrogen into the air and soil, nitrogen dioxide, have been linked to global warming, destruction of coral reefs, acid rain, respiratory illnesses and even colon cancer and heart disease.
Research conducted by University of Melbourne PhD candidate Emma Liang, released on Monday, shows Australia produces 47kg of nitrogen per person each year.
This is far ahead of the US at 28kg of nitrogen per person.
Two-thirds of the footprint is caused by food production (30.3kg) followed by housing (8.8kg).
The consumption of animal products accounts for 82 per cent of the Australian Food Nitrogen Footprint.
Of this 82 per cent, beef accounts for 33 per cent and dairy 16 per cent.
The development of nitrogen fertilisers - one of world's "major technical advances" - has helped feed nearly half the world's population but in doing so there has been a threefold increase in the amount of nitrate in ecosystems, said Dr Cameron Gourley, a senior research scientist with the Agriculture Research Division at the Department of Economic Development in Victoria.
"Nitrogen is both essential and problematic," Dr Gourley said.
The good news is that a person can have an impact on nitrogen pollution through their food choices, Ms Liang said.
People can eat lower nitrogen footprint protein diets, such as vegetables, chicken and seafood instead of beef and lamb.
Food waste can also be reduce by buying smaller quantities and composting.
To take on the global nitrogen problem, the United Nations' Environment Program has launched a new international nitrogen management system.
Launched at the Nitrogen Initiative Conference in Melbourne on Monday, the $US60 million International Nitrogen Management System (INMS) will collate the science of nitrogen and work towards better nitrogen policies and practice.