Agricultural land: nitrogen balance

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 26 Nov 2019
19 min read
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EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for 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 losses of nitrogen from agricultural land to the environment, expressed as the nitrogen balance, decreased from 2000 to 2015, which is a positive development. However, between 2010 and 2015 there were no further decreases. On average, for the EU, an unacceptable level of nitrogen losses from agricultural land to the environment is still being recorded. 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 2018


The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) calls for further efforts to manage the nutrient cycle more sustainably and to improve the efficiency of the use of fertilisers. A key nutrient in this context is nitrogen (N), which is one of the main elements in many fertilisers used in 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 during the period examined (2000 to 2015), 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, during the latest part of the period examined, from 2010 to 2015, average nitrogen losses did not decrease further. Altogether, and despite strong regional differences, the EU 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 the efficiency of 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 problems for human health. This nutrient pollution also results in economic losses and increased costs for society (e.g. in relation to drinking water treatment, human health, tourism and recreation). If not applied appropriately (e.g. taking account of weather conditions, stage of crop growth, dosage), fertilisers lead to excess nutrients that can be released to the wider environment, for instance by run-off into surface water (AIRS_PO1.9, 2018) or by 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 particular, 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 one of the main elements of many fertilizers (Eurostat, 2018a). 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 fertilisers and livestock manure, including balanced fertilisation 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 National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive (EU, 2016), which sets out emission reduction commitments for Member States and for the EU for important air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia, which are nitrogen compounds. 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 current funding period 2014-2020, ‘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.

From 2000 to 2015, 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 was closing and, therefore, the potential nitrogen surplus decreasing. The surplus of nitrogen applied to agricultural land fell by about 18 %, from an average (EU-28) of 62.2 kg per hectare in the period 2000-2003 to an average of 51.1 kg per hectare in the period 2012-2015 (Figure 1). It is important to take a series of years (3-4 years) instead of individual years as reference to identify trends in the development of the nitrogen surplus, as, for example, extreme weather conditions can influence annual nitrogen surplus rates (Eurostat, 2018b).

Figure 1 also reveals that since 2010 the nitrogen balance has not improved, i.e. the surplus of nitrogen from  agricultural land has not declined, further.

Figure 1. Gross nitrogen balance, EU

Note:  EU-28 totals calculated by the EEA based on Eurostat data.

There are multiple factors that can influence the development over time of the nitrogen balance and trends vary regionally. At EU level, some observations can be made on the trends in the nitrogen balance.

Over the period examined (2000 – 2015) the nitrogen-use-efficiency (total nitrogen outputs divided by total nitrogen inputs)[1] increased (Eurostat, 2018b) and this is an important factor behind the improving trend in the nitrogen balance (Eurostat, 2018b; 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). In most countries, implementing the Nitrates Directive and other agricultural improvements has tended to stabilise or reduce nitrogen inputs, potentially reducing environmental pressures (Eurostat, 2015; EC, 2017). Economic motives, such as ambitions to reduce production costs may have also led to efficiency gains.

Furthermore, nitrogen fertiliser is an important input to agricultural production, and the availability and prices of the different types of nitrogen fertilisers — primarily mineral and organic fertilisers, the latter class including manures — influence the development of the nitrogen balance. For instance, while the trend in the EU-28 was for the use of mineral fertiliser to decrease slightly over the period examined, it dipped significantly in the years 2009-2010 (Eurostat, 2018b) due to significantly increased prices of nitrogenous mineral fertiliser, which were linked to developments in the oil market (EC, 2011). Such an increase in mineral nitrogen fertiliser prices may stimulate an increase in use efficiency and an increase in the use of organic fertilisers. While an increase in nitrogen use efficiency with less fertiliser input leads to an enhanced nitrogen balance (less nitrogen surplus), the replacement of mineral fertilisers by organic fertilisers, which can be less precisely applied and include other substances, may lead to higher nitrogen emissions from the fertiliser application process[2]. As it regards manure, the main organic fertiliser, livestock numbers form a determinant for its availability[3]. In this context, numbers of the two most relevant livestock groups — cattle and pigs — in the EU-28 have, on average, decreased in the period examined, and thus the amount of manure should also have decreased.

Assessing whether the nitrogen cycle is managed more sustainably, as stipulated by the 7th EAP (see above), presents 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 what constitutes 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 exposure to pollution at which harmful effects on the environment (ecosystems, species) can be avoided. Work is ongoing to improve our understanding of critical loads. Critical loads (nitrogen in surface waters and emissions to 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 waters 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 (EEA, 2017), despite the improving trend in the nitrogen balance in previous years. This is confirmed by the reported eutrophication pressure on the EU’s protected species and habitats (EEA, 2015a; AIRS_PO1.7, 2018; AIRS_PO1.8, 2018).

Despite an increasing nitrogen use efficiency (Eurostat, 2018a), agriculture remains an important source of nitrogen in surface waters (EC, 2017). Agriculture is the biggest user of nitrogen in the world (EU Nitrogen Expert Panel, 2015), and in particular runoff from agricultural land has been identified as the predominant source of the nitrogen discharges to the aquatic environment over the last two decades (EC, 2018; see also EEA, 2005, 2012, 2018a), affecting nitrogen levels in freshwater (EC, 2018; EEA, 2018a; EEA, 2018b), transitional, coastal and marine waters (EEA, 2015b) and groundwater (EC, 2018). At EU-28 level, a small improvement was found for the reporting period 2012-2015, compared with the period 2008-2011 for the concentration of nitrogen in ground and surface water (EC, 2018)[4].

Mineral fertilisers delivered, on average, around 45 % of the nitrogen input to agricultural land considered in the nitrogen balance in the EU in the year 2014, while about 40 % comes from organic fertilisers, e.g. manure (Eurostat, 2018b). The different types of nitrogen source have different impacts on the environment (for an extended overview, see, for example, Umweltbundesamt, 2008; Eurostat, 2018b). Within the EU, mineral fertilisers are applied to agricultural soils mainly as straight nitrogen fertilisers in the form of ammonium nitrate or urea. Nitrogen in mineral fertilisers is particularly soluble, which facilitates its uptake by crops, but this also makes it susceptible to run-off following heavy rainfall and to leaching to groundwater. Manure inputs typically carry a high risk of ammonia emissions (Umweltbundesamt, 2008; ETC/ULS, 2016; Eurostat, 2018b). Despite the complex interplay of factors and flows of nitrogen to and in the environment, critical loads of nitrogen to terrestrial and freshwater systems can be estimated and compared with the actual inputs to the environment. Assessments for the year 2010 suggest that, for the EU, on average the reference values for critical loads were exceeded. The EU average values are, nevertheless, driven by regional hotspots, where the nitrogen balance is very unfavourable (ETC/ULS, 2016).

In conclusion, overall, the agricultural nitrogen balance showed an improving trend in the EU over the period 2000-2015. However, since 2010, there has been no further 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 comparison by country of the average agricultural nitrogen balances for the periods 2000-2003 and 2012-2015 show an improvement in the majority of European countries, with the exception of some: Czechia, Latvia, Norway and Poland (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Gross nitrogen balance by country

Notes: 1. Eurostat estimates for one or more years for Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania.
2. For Estonia, for the period 2000-2003, the average of the years 2004, 2005 and 2006 was taken instead.
3. For the EU-28, EEA calculations based on Eurostat data.

    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, primarily depending on agricultural intensity, including livestock density. Although the problem has been known for a long time, at the end of 2015 there were still derogations in place from the maximum amount of 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year from livestock manure in nitrate vulnerable zones — as stipulated in the Nitrates Directive (EU, 1991) — for Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands as well as for Flanders in Belgium, Emilia Romagna, Lombardia, Piemonte and Veneto in Italy, and England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom (EC, 2018).

    The factors underpinning the decreasing trends in agricultural nitrogen surpluses observed in most countries are diverse and case-by-case assessments would be needed to reflect upon the pattern of causality.[5]

    Outlook beyond 2020

    Future trends in the development of the nitrogen balance for agricultural land will depend on a number of factors, including area of arable land, types of crops produced, biofuel production, livestock numbers, agricultural practices, technologies and types of management, markets and trade patterns, and food choices (Winiwarter et al., 2011). Moreover, not only future EU agricultural and environmental policies but also the implementation of policies in other fields, such as on the circular economy, will influence the development of the nitrogen balance (EC, 2015). While making overall predictions for the development of the nitrogen balance presents a challenge, some observations on relevant developments can be noted. An increase in demand for nitrogen fertiliser is predicted for Europe up to 2020, whereby increases are foreseen for central Europe and eastern Europe and central Asia, and a decrease anticipated for western Europe (FAO, 2017). An increase in fertiliser use may also be expected up to 2050 (Bruinsma, 2012). Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean an increase in future in the surplus of nitrogen from agricultural land, as fertilisers may be applied more efficiently. 

    Some of the actions that will encourage optimal fertiliser application and therefore might possibly improve the nitrogen balance in EU Member States in future include promoting precision agriculture, fertiliser advice programmes, the increased use of soil sampling, nutrient bookkeeping, adapting livestock feeding schemes, the further uptake of agri-environmental measures and the extension of designated nitrate vulnerable zones. Such actions may be initiated in the context of the further implementation of the Nitrates and Water Framework Directives and the Common Agricultural Policy.

    Within reporting on the Nitrates Directive, 12 Member States and two regions predict a decrease in nitrate concentration in surface- and groundwater, partly due to changes in agricultural practices and agri-environmental measures, seven Member States and three regions came to no conclusion on a possible trend, three Member States did not report a forecast, and one Member State and a region indicated that a forecast would not be possible (EC, 2018).

    The fertiliser regulation (EU, 2003) is currently in the final stages of revision by EU legislators. The regulation deals with placing fertilisers on the market. Its revision is likely to lead to more sustainable use of fertilisers as regards, for example, the possibilities for nutrient recycling and the by-products, such as cadmium, of fertilisers placed on the market in the EU. However, it does not foresee to regulate the amounts of fertiliser applied per hectare of arable land, which depends on the crop grown as well as on soil and climate conditions (EC, 2016) and falls mainly under the scope of the Nitrates Directive.

    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. The indicator does not account for all nitrogen released to the environment through the agricultural sector’s activities. For further information on the indicator, see also Eurostat, 2018b.

    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 be considered consistent only 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 figures at national and European levels 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 2012-2015 were taken as reference periods (Figure 2).

    Footnotes and references

    [1] Generally speaking, nitrogen use efficiency considers nitrogen fertilisers as input and nitrogen content of harvested products as output and reflects on the productivity of agricultural production. The nitrogen use efficiency varies between production systems and is influenced by farm management. An increase in nitrogen use efficiency can, for example, be reasoned in more outputs for the same amount of nitrogen fertiliser, or by achieving the same amount of outputs (nitrogen content of harvested crops) using less fertiliser.

    [2] The various types of fertilisers have different characteristics and impacts on the environment. For instance, while mineral fertilisers can be applied more precisely and their uptake by plants is higher, some types of organic fertilisers, such as compost, have a positive impact on the soil structure.

    [3] It should be noted that manure is not solely used for crop fertilisation, but also for, for example, biogas production, and it may also be exported to other regions/countries. Thus, while in the past, the livestock density in a region, i.e. the number of livestock units per UAA, provided a good indication of the manure to be considered as an input to agricultural land, this equation cannot be applied any longer without particular care. Moreover, through changing farm structures, including, for example, the formation of so-called ‘zero-hectare farms’, which produce only livestock without holding UAA, and the production of biogas, this relation between livestock density and manure used as a fertiliser is also no longer so obvious/evident.

    [4] There was a decrease in nitrogen in groundwater between the two reporting periods, i.e. there were fewer monitoring stations that reached or exceeded nitrate concentrations of 50 mg/L (13.2 % fewer stations for groundwater and 1.8% fewer stations for surface water in the period 2012-2015 compared with those in 2008-2011); there were, nevertheless, increasing trends in nitrate concentrations in some Member States or regions (EC, 2018).

    [5] The diversity in the development of fertiliser use patterns in countries with an improving nitrogen balance can be illustrated with the following examples. While in Croatia the use of mineral fertiliser decreased strongly (-30 %), it increased significantly in Bulgaria (+56 %) (comparing the periods 2008-2011 and 2012-2015) (EC, 2018). For countries with an improving nitrogen balance, a relatively large increase (≥ 5 %) in manure can be observed for Hungary and a relatively large decrease (≤ 5 %) for Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechia, Malta, Romania and Slovenia (comparing the periods 2008-2011 and 2012-2015) (EC, 2018).

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    AIRS briefings

    AIRS_PO1.9, 2018, Surface waters.
    AIRS_PO1.7, 2018, EU protected species.
    AIRS_PO1.8, 2018, EU protected habitats.

    Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency


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