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Agriculture: nitrogen balance

Indicator Specification Created 26 Feb 2007 Published 21 May 2010 Last modified 04 Sep 2015, 06:59 PM
Topics: ,
Indicator codes: SEBI 019

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)


Justification for indicator selection


  • Policy relevance: indicates the degree of nutrient pressure from agriculture on biodiversity. Also provides a proxy measure for the intensity of agriculture in general.
  • Well developed and established.
  • Broad acceptance and understandability.
  • Can be updated yearly.

Scientific references

  • No rationale references available

Indicator definition

'Gross nitrogen balance' estimates the potential surplus of nitrogen on agricultural land. This is done by calculating the balance between nitrogen added to an agricultural system (nitrogen input can be taken as a proxy indicator for the general intensity of agricultural management) and nitrogen removed from the system per hectare of agricultural land. The indicator accounts for all inputs to and outputs from the farm, and therefore includes nitrogen input.


The units used in this indicator are:
kilogrammes per hectare

Policy context and targets

Context description

High nitrogen inputs and losses generally coincide with high phosphorous, and pesticide inputs and losses. The nitrogen balance is related to nutrient leaching risks: high nitrogen inputs and imbalances normally lead to high pressure on biodiversity within and outside the farmed environment.

Agriculture is intensifying in many places, causing increasing pressure on biodiversity. Increasing nitrogen availability favours a few nitrophilous species and suppresses many other, rarer species. The 'nitrogen balance' includes nitrogen input (fertilising, nitrogen fixation and nitrogen deposition among other things) and nitrogen output (denitrification and the emission of ammonia among other things) and thus reflects a major part of the nitrogen cycle and the impact of farm management on the hydrosphere and atmosphere. Nitrogen input (fertilising and nitrogen fixation) more directly affects the level of biodiversity in fields and grasslands.

Relation of the indicator to the focal area

The sustainable management of agricultural ecosystems would minimise the negative effects from excess nitrogen through management of the nitrogen-balance.


2020 EU Biodiversity Targets: target 3

Related policy documents

  • EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
    in the Communication: Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244) the European Commission has adopted a new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. There are six main targets, and 20 actions to help Europe reach its goal. The six targets cover: - Full implementation of EU nature legislation to protect biodiversity - Better protection for ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure - More sustainable agriculture and forestry - Better management of fish stocks - Tighter controls on invasive alien species - A bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss

Key policy question

Is the nitrogen surplus from agriculture being reduced?


Methodology for indicator calculation

Calculation of the indicator per country: see the OECD/Eurostat gross nutrient balance handbook. 

Total Nitrogen input:

  • Total fertilisers;
  • Inorganic fertilisers (simple mineral fertilisers, complex mineral fertilisers, mineral-organic compounds);
  • Organic fertilisers (urban compost, sewage sludge spread on agricultural land);
  • Livestock manure production;
  • Manure stocks (stock levels, imports and exports of livestock manure);
  • Biological nitrogen fixation (nitrogen fixed in the soil);
  • Atmospheric deposition of nitrogen compounds; and
  • Other inputs (seeds and planting material, ...).


Total nitrogen outputs from farm unit: total harvested crops and forage.

Subtracting the sum of the total nitrogen output from the total nitrogen input results in the gross nutrient balance for nitrogen.

Methodology for gap filling


Methodology references

No methodology references available.

Data specifications

EEA data references

  • No datasets have been specified here.

Data sources in latest figures


Methodology uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sets uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Rationale uncertainty


  • The data is available at national level. National nitrogen balances can hide great regional variation and thus lead to regional problems being overlooked. This is a particular issue for larger countries with different areas under different (intensive or extensive) agricultural regimes.
  • Input and balance of nutrients is only one of the factors that determines agricultural intensity and is relevant to biodiversity. Pesticide use and crop diversity, for example, are also important.



There are various possible indicators for this process: nitrogen balance, phosphorous balance, pesticide inputs, crop and dairy yields, livestock density, diversity of crop rotation etc. The 'nitrogen balance' indicator was selected because it is relatively well documented, it relates well to the majority of farming systems and eutrophication is an important environmental problem adversely affecting biodiversity.

It is closely related to other nitrogen-related indicators:

  • Mineral fertiliser consumption (IRENA 08, Environmental Risk Assessment for European Agriculture -- ENRISK).
  • Nitrogen excretion from livestock manure (ENRISK).
  • Share of agriculture in total nitrogen load in rivers (ENRISK).
  • Share of agriculture in nitrate contamination (IRENA 34.2).
  • Several OECD agri-environment indicators.

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

Work description

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT If feasible a regionalisation of the indicator would be useful. Relevant work is being developed in cooperation between Eurostat and the EEA in the context of developing regional gross nutrient balances. An alternative approach could be to develop nitrogen balance data on the basis of farm samples. Some relevant information is already available in the FADN survey (farm accountancy data network). Samples should ideally include intensive farmland and  high nature value farmland separately to identify changes on a disaggregated level. Choosing sample locations in line with a stratified sampling framework for monitoring European habitats (see sub-indicator 'High nature value farmland area' of indicator 20), could improve interpretation opportunities. For nitrogen input (and surplus) there are methods under development (i.e. CAPRI (Common Agricultural Policy Regionalized Impact Anaylsis), FATE (Fate of Agrochemicals in Terrestrial Ecosystems in Europe) for deriving their distribution at a finer scale (within 1 to 10 square km cells) and this will allow making some better estimates in the near future. To more fully describe this phenomenon, reference is made to the IRENA set of agri-environment indicators for the EU.

Resource needs

No resource needs have been specified


Not started


2020/12/31 00:00:00 GMT+1

General metadata


Indicator code
SEBI 019
Version id: 1
Primary theme: Biodiversity Biodiversity


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Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled once per year


DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Efficiency indicator (Type C - Are we improving?)
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