Nitrogen fertiliser magically transformed agriculture. Today we need a new spell to clear up the results

THE MOST IMPORTANT thing about Mark Sutton is his contribution to the world’s efforts to clean up nitro­gen pollution, but that is not the most striking thing about him. With the earnest air of an English schoolboy of yesteryear, an ability to get into great detail about his enthusiasms very quickly and, on occasion, socks with his sandals, he is, give or take a scar and a few decades, the spitting image of Harry Potter.

Young Potter’s saga is about facing up to consequences: his life is entirely shaped by the unfinished business of great struggles fought at and before the time of his birth. So is Sutton’s saga. A professor at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology just outside Edinburgh, he is devoting his career to reining in the adverse effects of one of the most profound transformations of the 20th century.

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