Agriculture: nitrogen balance (SEBI 019) - Assessment published May 2010
Biodiversity (Primary topic)
- SEBI 019
Key policy question: Is the nitrogen surplus from agriculture being reduced?
Agricultural nitrogen surpluses (the difference between all nutrient inputs and outputs on agricultural land) show a declining trend, thereby potentially reducing environmental pressures on soil, water and air. Many countries, however, still maintain a large surplus.
Nitrogen input on agricultural land in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries
Note: How to read the graph: between 1995 and 2004, total nitrogen input on agricultural land in Germany decreased from about 5 to about 4 million tonnes
Based on OECD, 2008.
Nitrogen balance per hectare of agricultural land
Note: How to read the graph: in 20 years, nitrogen balance per ha was reduced from 240 to 173 kg/ha in Belgium.
Based on OECD, 2008.
A nutrient balance describes the difference between all nutrient inputs and outputs on agricultural land. A positive balance or surplus reflects inputs that are in excess of crop and forage needs. It can result in diffuse pollution through the loss of nutrients to water bodies, decreasing water quality while promoting eutrophication. Surplus nitrogen can also be lost to air as ammonia and other greenhouse gases.
All European countries exhibit a nitrogen surplus. Overall however, these surpluses have declined since the mid-1980s, reducing the environmental pressures on soil, water and air. The adoption of nutrient management plans and environmental farm plans has had a key role in this reduction.
It is, however, important not only to consider rates of surplus decline but also their absolute values. Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, show significant decreases although nutrient surpluses in these two countries currently remain much higher than the average across all countries, indicating high productivity and pressure on biodiversity.
Conversely, some countries show an increase but still remain below the average.
In most countries, national nutrient balances typically mask considerable regional variation due to variation in the type and intensity of farming.
Although gross nitrogen balance can show areas where ground and surface waters may be at risk from nitrogen leaching, it should not be interpreted as data on actual losses to the environment. In order to assess the environmental impact of excess nitrogen, more information is needed on farm nitrogen management, soil type, and climate conditions, all of which play a role in the fate of nitrogen in the environment. 'Gross nitrogen balance' is also an agri-environmental indicator and part of the compulsory indicators of the Common Monitoring and Evaluation Framework (CMEF) for rural development. Work is ongoing on streamlining similar indicators used in different processes.
Gross Nutrient Balance
provided by Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat)
More information about this indicator
See this indicator specification for more details.
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoKatarzyna Biala
EEA Management Plan2010 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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