Agricultural land: nitrogen balance

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2017 Last modified 13 Jul 2021
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EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook of the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Gross nutrient balance in agricultural land: nitrogen

Green triangle: improving trend


Manage the nutrient cycle in a more sustainable way (nitrogen) — 7th EAP

Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020

Overall, the past trend in agricultural nitrogen balance was improving from 2000 to 2014, although since 2010 it flattened out. The EU, on average, still has an unacceptable level of nitrogen losses from agricultural land to the environment and further efforts are needed to manage the nutrient cycle for nitrogen sustainably in the EU.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017


The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) calls for further efforts to manage the nutrient cycle in a more sustainable way and to improve efficiency in the use of fertilisers. The key nutrient in this context is nitrogen (N), which is the main element of many fertilisers used in the agricultural production. High nitrogen losses from agricultural land to the environment have a significant negative impact on biodiversity and ecosystems. Nitrogen losses to the environment from agricultural land decreased in the EU between 2000 and 2014, with expected positive effects on soil, water and air quality and, consequently, on biota and ecosystems. An important factor behind this decrease is enhanced nitrogen management practices; in particular changes in fertiliser application techniques. However, since 2010 nitrogen losses have not decreased further. In addition, the EU, on average, still has an unacceptable surplus of nitrogen in agricultural land in view of the consequent losses to the environment, and further efforts are needed to manage the nutrient cycle for nitrogen in a sustainable way in the EU.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP (EU, 2013) calls for further efforts to manage the nutrient cycle in a more sustainable way and to improve efficiency in the use of fertilisers. Excessive nutrient losses affect soil, air and water quality, have a negative impact on ecosystems and have the potential to cause significant problems for human health. This nutrient pollution also results in significant economic losses and increased costs for society (for example in relation to drinking water treatment, human health, tourism and recreation). If not applied correctly (e.g. taking account of weather conditions, stage of crop growth, dosage, etc.), fertilisers lead to excess nutrients that can be released to the wider environment, for instance by run-off into surface water (AIRS_PO1.9, 2017) or leaching into groundwater. Eutrophication caused by excess nutrients can result in increases in weeds and algae, reduced oxygen levels and subsequent biodiversity loss. These impacts can be reduced by balancing nutrient inputs with the outputs of the agricultural system (i.e. nutrients contained in grazed and harvested crops/grassland and in crop residues) in order to limit nutrient losses to the environment. This briefing focuses on nitrogen which is a key element with respect to managing the nutrient cycle in a more sustainable way – it is the main element of many fertilizers (Eurostat, 2017b). More specifically, the briefing addresses nitrogen losses from agricultural land. This is one of the main contributors to nitrogen emissions (EEA, 2005).

Policy targets and progress

There are no environmental acquis objectives that match the 7th EAP objective of managing the nutrient cycle in a more cost-effective, sustainable and resource-efficient way. Nevertheless, several directives relate to the nutrient cycle. The EU Nitrates Directive (EU, 1991) aims to reduce water pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources and prevent pollution of ground and surface waters. To achieve this, the Directive identifies polluted waters based on maximum concentrations of nitrates and trophic status and establishes requirements related to the use of fertilizers and livestock manure, including, balanced fertilization and periods during which nitrogen application is prohibited. There are several other EU directives that are relevant to the impact of excessive nutrient use in agriculture, namely the EU Water Framework Directive (EU, 2000) through its legal obligation to protect and restore the quality of all inland and coastal waters across Europe, and the Directive on Sewage Sludge (EU, 1986) through its regulation of the use of sewage sludge in agriculture. Also relevant to the management of nutrients from agricultural sources are targeted agri-environment-climate measures in Rural Development Programmes and, other Common Agricultural Policy instruments that encompass environmental requirements such as cross-compliance, and with the new 2014-2020 funding period also “greening measures” associated with direct payments. Achieving a gross nutrient balance that implies acceptable losses to the environment, although not a stated aim of these policy instruments, is key to achieving some of their objectives.

Between 2000 and 2014, the gross balance between nitrogen added to and removed from agricultural land in the EU showed an improving trend (Figure 1), meaning that the gap between inputs and outputs is closing and, therefore, the overall potential nitrogen surplus decreases. The surplus of nitrogen applied to agricultural land fell by about 19 %, from 63 kg per hectare in 2000 to 51 kg per hectare in 2014 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Gross nitrogen balance, EU

Note:  Eurostat estimates

It is important to take a series of years (3-4 years) instead of individual years as reference in order to identify trends in the development of nitrogen surplus as e.g. extreme weather conditions can influence annual nitrogen surplus rates (Eurostat, 2017a). Indeed, over the last four years (2011-2014) the level of surplus did not decrease further and remained relatively stable.

Over the period examined (2000-2014), an increased nitrogen-use-efficiency can be regarded as an important factor behind the improving trend in the nitrogen balance (Eurostat, 2017a, see also EU Nitrogen Expert Panel, 2015). These efficiency gains may have been achieved through adapted nitrogen management practices, such as changes in fertiliser application techniques (Eurostat, 2015) and may have been driven by the implementation of other specific measures of the Common Agricultural Policy and of EU legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Economic motives, such as ambitions to reduce production costs may have also led to efficiency gains. In most countries, implementation of the Nitrates Directive and other agricultural improvements has tended to stabilise or reduce nitrogen inputs, potentially reducing environmental pressures (EC, 2017, Eurostat, 2015).

Assessing whether the nitrogen cycle is managed sustainably, as stipulated by the 7th EAP (see above), holds many challenges, and determining a sustainable level of nitrogen balance is not trivial.

In practice, in agricultural production, losses of nitrogen to air (mainly ammonia) and water (mainly nitrate) are inevitable.

Yet, the main focus should be on reducing nitrogen losses to the environment to the minimum level possible and on reaching a better understanding of acceptable losses of nitrogen to the environment. Acceptable rates of nitrogen surplus can be estimated through a critical loads approach, which is a quantitative estimate of the upper limit of pollution exposure at which harmful effects to the environment (ecosystems, species) can be avoided. Work is ongoing to improve our understanding of critical loads. Critical loads (nitrogen in the surface waters and emissions to the air) vary for different types of ecosystems (APIS, 2017), and reference values for nitrogen surplus have to account for the type of agricultural system, the climate-soil-environmental conditions, and the types of nitrogen input (EU Nitrogen Expert Panel, 2015).

When considering critical loads of nitrogen in surface water and in air with respect to biodiversity (habitat quality), the amounts of nitrogen applied to the system were still found to substantially exceed acceptable inputs and related losses in several European regions in 2010, despite the improving trend in the nitrogen balance in previous years (EEA, 2016). This is confirmed by the reported eutrophication pressure on the EU’s protected species and habitats (EEA, 2015a), (AIRS_PO1.7, 2017), (AIRS_PO1.8, 2017).

Despite an increasing nitrogen-use efficiency (Eurostat, 2017a), agriculture remains an important source of nitrogen in surface waters (EC 2017, EU, 2010). Agriculture, which is the biggest user of nitrogen in the world (EU Nitrogen Expert Panel, 2015), and especially runoff from agricultural land, typically contribute 50–80 % of the total nitrogen load in European surface waters (EEA, 2005; see also EC 2010; EEA 2012), affecting nitrogen levels in freshwater (EEA, 2015c) and transitional, coastal and marine waters (EEA, 2015b). Mineral fertilisers deliver, on average, around 45 % of the nitrogen input in the EU, while nearly 40 % comes from organic fertilisers, i.e. manure (Eurostat 2017a). The different types of nitrogen source have different impacts on the environment (for an extended overview, see e.g. Eurostat 2017a). Within the EU, mineral fertilisers are applied to agricultural soils mainly as straight nitrogen fertilisers in the form of ammonium nitrate. Nitrogen in mineral fertilisers is particularly soluble to facilitate uptake by crops, but this also makes it susceptible to run-off following heavy rainfall and to leaching to groundwater (Eurostat, 2017a). Manure inputs typically contribute to ammonia emissions.

In conclusion, overall, the agricultural nitrogen balance showed, on average, an improving trend in the EU over the 2000-2014 period. However, since 2010, there has been no discernible improvement. In addition, the EU, and some regions in particular, still has an unacceptable surplus of nitrogen in agricultural land in relation to losses to the environment, so further efforts are needed in the EU to manage the nutrient cycle for nitrogen in a sustainable way.

Country level information

A country comparison of the average agricultural nitrogen balances for the years 2000–2003 and 2011– 2014 show an improvement in the majority of European countries, with the exception of some countries: Austria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Norway, Poland and Slovakia (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Gross nitrogen balance by country


1. Eurostat estimates for EU-28, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.

2. For the period 2000-03, data for Estonia are from 2004.

3. For the period 2011-14, data for Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland are from 2010-13.


    Although decreasing in most Member States, agricultural nitrogen surpluses are still high in some parts of Europe, in particular in Western Europe and in some Mediterranean countries. Even in countries with low national averages, there can be regions with high loadings, depending on agricultural intensity, including livestock density. 


    Outlook beyond 2020

    Future trends in the use of mineral fertilisers will depend on a number of factors, in particular on future EU agricultural and environmental policies, but also on the implementation of policies in other fields such as on circular economy (EC, 2015). An increase in fertiliser use may be expected to 2050 (Bruinsma, 2012). 
    Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean a future increase in the surplus of nitrogen from agricultural land as the fertilisers may be applied more efficiently. 

    Some of the actions that will encourage optimal fertiliser application and therefore might possibly improve the nutrient balance in EU countries in future, and which may be initiated in the context of the further implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Water Framework or the Nitrates Directives, include promoting precision agriculture, fertiliser advice programmes, the increased use of soil sampling, nutrient bookkeeping, adapted livestock feeding schemes, and the further uptake of agri-environmental measures. 

    About the indicator

    The indicator estimates the potential surplus (or deficit) of nitrogen in agricultural land. It calculates the balance between nitrogen added to an agricultural system and nitrogen removed from the system annually in kilograms of nitrogen per hectare of utilised agricultural area (UAA). The input side of the balance counts mineral fertiliser application and manure excretion as well as atmospheric deposition, biological fixation and biosolids (compost, sludge and sewage) input. The output side of the balance represents the removal from grassland (grazing and mowing) and the net crop uptake (removal) from arable land. The gross nitrogen balance takes an ‘extended soil’ surface, or ‘land’ surface, as the system boundary, meaning that it also includes the nitrogen losses from animal housing and manure management (e.g. storage) systems. For further information on the indicator scope and methodology see Eurostat (2017a).

    The data used are partly based on expert estimates of various physical parameters for the individual countries as a whole. Differing assumptions mean that the balances should only be considered as consistent within a country and that comparisons between countries should be made with caution. There may also be large regional variations within a country, and therefore national figures should be interpreted with care.

    To assess the trend in the development of the nitrogen-balance, it is necessary to draw on average values over several years, for accounting for annual outliers, e.g. extreme weather conditions, may influence the annual nitrogen surplus. In this case, 2000-2003, and 2011-2014 were taken as reference periods (Figure 2).

    Footnotes and references

    APIS, 2017, Critical Loads and Critical Levels - a guide to the data provided in APIS, Air Pollution Information System ( accessed 6 October 2017.

    Bruinsma, J. 20012, European and Central Asian Agriculture Towards 2030 and 2050, AO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia  Policy Studies on Rural Transition No. 2012-1 ( accessed 19 May 2017.

    EC, 2010, The EU Nitrates Directive, European Commission ( accessed 19 May 2017.

    EC, 2015, Closing the loop – An EU action plan for the circular economy (COM(2015) 614 final) ( accessed 1 November 2017. 

    EC, 2017, Commission Staff Working Document, Agriculture and Sustainable Water Management in the EU, SWD(2017) 153 final, European Commission, Brussels.

    EEA, 2005, Source apportionment of nitrogen and phosphorus inputs into the aquatic environment, EEA Report No 7/2005, European Environment Agency.

    EEA, 2012, European waters – assessment of status and pressures, EEA Report No 8/2012, European Environment Agency.

    EEA, 2015a, State of nature in the EU, EEA Technical report No 2/2015, European Environment Agency ( accessed 3 May 2017.

    EEA, 2015b, ‘Nutrients in transitional, coastal and marine waters (CSI 021/MAR 005)’ ( accessed 3 May 2017.

    EEA, 2015c, ‘Nutrients in freshwater (CSI 020/WAT 003)’ ( accessed 6 October 2017.

    EEA, 2016, ‘Exposure of ecosystems to acidification, eutrophication and ozone (CSI 005)’ ( accessed 3 May 2017.

    EU, 1986, Council Directive 86/278/EEC of 12 June 1986 on the protection of the environment, and in particular of the soil, when sewage sludge is used in agriculture (OJ L 181, 4.7.1986, p. 6–12).

    EU, 1991, Council Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources (OJ L 375, 31.12.1991, p. 1–8).

    EU, 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy (OJ L 327, 22.12.2000, p. 1–23).

    EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

    EU Nitrogen Expert Panel, 2015, Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) - an indicator for the utilization of nitrogen in agriculture and food systems. Wageningen University, Alterra, PO Box 47, NL-6700 Wageningen, Netherlands. 

    Eurostat, 2015, Sustainable development in the European Union. 2015 monitoring report of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy, Eurostat Statistical books, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, ISSN 2443-8480.Eurostat, 2017a, ‘Gross nutrient balance in agricultural land (t2020_rn310)’ accessed 15 May 2017.

    Eurostat, 2017a, Agri-environmental indicator - gross nitrogen balance ( accessed 3 May 2017.

    Eurostat, 2017b, Agri-environmental indicator - mineral fertiliser consumption, ( accessed 15 May 2017.


    AIRS briefings

    AIRS_PO1.9, 2017, Surface waters

    AIRS_PO1.7, 2017, EU protected species

    AIRS_PO1.8, 2017, EU protected habitats


    Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency


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