Agriculture: nitrogen balance

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-157-en
Also known as: SEBI 019
Created 03 Dec 2018 Published 20 Dec 2018 Last modified 20 Dec 2018
5 min read
At the EU level, there has been a decrease in the agricultural nitrogen balance between 2000 and 2015, which is an indication of an improving trend. The main decrease was between 2000 and 2010; between 2010 and 2015 there was no further significant decrease. A country comparison of the average agricultural nitrogen balance for the years 2000-2003 and 2012-2015, shows that for the majority of European countries there was a reduction in the nitrogen balance, reflecting an improving trend. Although the agricultural nitrogen balance is decreasing in most Member States, it is still considered to be unacceptably high in some parts of Europe because of associated impacts on the environment. This is particularly true in western Europe and in some Mediterranean countries. Even in countries with low national averages, there can be regions with high nitrogen loadings because of agricultural intensity, such as livestock density. Further efforts are therefore needed to reduce the balance.

Key messages

At the EU level, there has been a decrease in the agricultural nitrogen balance between 2000 and 2015, which is an indication of an improving trend. The main decrease was between 2000 and 2010; between 2010 and 2015 there was no further significant decrease.

A country comparison of the average agricultural nitrogen balance for the years 2000-2003 and 2012-2015, shows that for the majority of European countries there was a reduction in the nitrogen balance, reflecting an improving trend.

Although the agricultural nitrogen balance is decreasing in most Member States, it is still considered to be unacceptably high in some parts of Europe because of associated impacts on the environment. This is particularly true in western Europe and in some Mediterranean countries. Even in countries with low national averages, there can be regions with high nitrogen loadings because of agricultural intensity, such as livestock density. Further efforts are therefore needed to reduce the balance.

Is the nitrogen surplus from agriculture in Europe being reduced?

Gross nitrogen balance in the EU

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Gross nitrogen balance in Europe by country

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Between 2000 and 2015, the gross (agricultural) nitrogen balance (i.e. the balance between nitrogen added to agricultural land and that removed from it) in the EU showed a decrease, essentially reflecting an improving trend (Figure 1). This means that the gap between nitrogen inputs and outputs is reducing and, therefore, that the overall potential nitrogen surplus is decreasing. It is important to note, however, that during the most recent part of the period covered (2010 to 2015), the nitrogen balance has not, on average, decreased any further.

The surplus of nitrogen applied to agricultural land fell by about 18 %, from an EU-28 average 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, Figure 2). Note that it is important to take a series of 3-4 years instead of individual years as reference when identifying trends in the development of nitrogen surplus, as factors such as extreme weather conditions can influence annual nitrogen surplus rates (Eurostat, 2018).

In the majority of European countries (with the exception of Czechia, Latvia, Norway and Poland), a country comparison of the average agricultural nitrogen balances for the years 2000-2003 and 2012-2015 shows a reduction in the balance, reflecting an improving trend (Figure 2).

Although the agricultural nitrogen balance is 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. In addition, it is important to consider not only rates of surplus decline but also their absolute values. Belgium, Malta and the Netherlands, for example, show significant decreases between 2000-2003 and 2012-2015, yet the gross nitrogen balance in these countries remains much higher than the average across all countries. Conversely, some countries (e.g. Czechia, Poland) show an increase but still remain below the average.

Although the issue of nitrogen pollution has been known for a considerable time, at the end of 2015 there were still 'derogations' in place in Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and in some regions (Flanders in Belgium; and Emilia Romagna, Lombardia, Piemonte and Veneto in Italy) (EC, 2018) regarding the maximum amount of nitrogen. The maximum amount, as stipulated in the Nitrates Directive (EU, 1991), is 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year from livestock manure in vulnerable zones. 

Overall, despite strong regional differences, the EU still has an unacceptable surplus of nitrogen in agricultural land, particularly in view of the resultant impacts on the environment. Further efforts are needed to manage the nutrient cycle for nitrogen in a more sustainable way.

Further information

The gross (or agricultural) nitrogen balance describes the difference between all nitrogen inputs and outputs on agricultural land. Nitrogen is the main element of many fertilisers used in agricultural production. A positive balance or surplus therefore reflects inputs that are in excess of crop and forage needs, and may result in diffuse pollution through, for example, the loss of nutrients to water bodies, leading to decreased water quality and increased eutrophication. Surplus nitrogen can also be lost to air as ammonia and other greenhouse gases. High nitrogen losses from agricultural land to the environment therefore have a significant negative impact on biodiversity and ecosystems, and have the potential to cause problems for human health.

All European countries exhibit a positive nitrogen balance or surplus. Overall, these surpluses have decreased since the mid-1980s, therefore reducing the environmental pressures from nitrogen on soil, water and air. The adoption of nutrient management plans and environmental farm plans has had a key role in this reduction, leading to improvements in agricultural management practices, such as changes in fertiliser application techniques. The reason for the slow down, or halt, in the decrease observed between 2010 and 2015 is not clear.

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

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. 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 nitrogen losses from animal housing and manure management (e.g. storage) systems.  

The data used are partly based on expert estimates of various physical parameters for the individual countries as a whole. There may also be large regional variations within a country so 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, as factors such as extreme weather conditions may influence the annual nitrogen surplus. In this case, 2000-2003, and 2011-2014 were taken as reference periods.

Units

The units used in this indicator are kilograms per hectare of utilised agricultural area.


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.

Targets

2020 EU Biodiversity Targets - target 3a: By 2020, maximise areas under agriculture across grasslands, arable land and permanent crops that are covered by biodiversity-related measures under the CAP so as to ensure the conservation of biodiversity and to bring about a measurable improvement in the conservation status of species and habitats that depend on or are affected by agriculture and in the provision of ecosystem services as compared tothe EU2010 Baseline, thus contributing to enhance sustainable management.

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

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

The methodology for calculating the nitrogen balances is described in the Eurostat/OECD Nutrient Budgets Handbook .

The inputs to the nitrogen balance are:

  • Fertilisers, which consist of:
  •         inorganic fertilisers,
  •         organic fertilisers (excluding manure).
  • Gross manure input, which is calculated from:
  •         manure production (nitrogen excretion; according to the current methodology no reductions are made for nitrogen losses due to volatilisation in stables, storage and application to the land);
  •         manure withdrawals (manure export, manure processed as industrial waste, non-agricultural use of manure, other withdrawals);
  •         change in manure stocks;
  •         manure import.
  • Other nitrogen inputs, which consist of:
  •         seeds and planting material;
  •         biological nitrogen fixation by leguminous crops and grass-legume mixtures;
  •         atmospheric deposition.

The outputs of the gross nitrogen balance are: 

  • Total removal of nitrogen with the harvest of crops (cereals, dried pulses, root crops, industrial crops, vegetables, fruit, ornamental plants, other harvested crops);
  • Total removal of nitrogen with the harvest and grazing of fodder (permanent grassland and fodder from arable land including temporary grassland);
  • Crop residues removed from the field.

 

Methodology for gap filling

No gap filling was used for this indicator.

Methodology references

No methodology references available.

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified.

Data sets uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified.

Rationale uncertainty

This indicator has several main disadvantages:

  • The data are available at national level. However, 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 determine agricultural intensity and are relevant to biodiversity. Pesticide use and crop diversity, for example, are also important.

Data sources

Generic metadata

Topics:

information.png Tags:
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DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Efficiency indicator (Type C - Are we improving?)
Indicator codes
  • SEBI 019
Temporal coverage:

Dates

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled once per year
Document Actions
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