Skip to main content

The nitrogen footprint of food products in the European Union

  • A. LEIP (a1), F. WEISS (a1), J. P. LESSCHEN (a2) and H. WESTHOEK (a3)

Nitrogen (N) is an essential element for plants and animals. Due to large inputs of mineral fertilizer, crop yields and livestock production in Europe have increased markedly over the last century, but as a consequence losses of reactive N to air, soil and water have intensified as well. Two different models (CAPRI and MITERRA) were used to quantify the N flows in agriculture in the European Union (EU27), at country-level and for EU27 agriculture as a whole, differentiated into 12 main food categories. The results showed that the N footprint, defined as the total N losses to the environment per unit of product, varies widely between different food categories, with substantially higher values for livestock products and the highest values for beef (c. 500 g N/kg beef), as compared to vegetable products. The lowest N footprint of c. 2 g N/kg product was calculated for sugar beet, fruits and vegetables, and potatoes. The losses of reactive N were dominated by N leaching and run-off, and ammonia volatilization, with 0·83 and 0·88 due to consumption of livestock products. The N investment factors, defined as the quantity of new reactive N required to produce one unit of N in the product varied between 1·2 kg N/kg N in product for pulses to 15–20 kg N for beef.

Corresponding author
* To whom all correspondence should be addressed. Email:
Hide All
Batjes, N. H. (2006). ISRIC-WISE Derived Soil Properties on a 5 by 5 Arc-minutes Global Grid (version 1.0). Wageningen, The Netherlands: World Soil Information. Available from: (verified 22 August 2013).
Bellarby, J., Tirado, R., Leip, A., Weiss, F., Lesschen, J. P. & Smith, P. (2013). Livestock greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potential in Europe. Global Change Biology 19, 318.
Britz, W. & Witzke, P. (2012). CAPRI Model Documentation 2012. Bonn: University Bonn.
Chatzimpiros, P. & Barles, S. (2013). Nitrogen food-print : N use related to meat and dairy consumption in France. Biogeosciences 10, 471481.
De Vries, W., Leip, A., Reinds, G. J., Kros, J., Lesschen, J. P. & Bouwman, A. F. (2011). Comparison of land nitrogen budgets for European agriculture by various modeling approaches. Environmental Pollution 159, 32543268.
ENVIFOOD (2012). ENVIFOOD Protocol. Environmental Assessment of Food and Drink Protocol. Draft Version 0.1 for Pilot Testing, November 2012. Brussels: European Food Sustainable Consumption & Production Round Table Secretariat.
Erisman, J. W., Sutton, M. A., Galloway, J., Klimont, Z. & Winiwarter, W. (2008). How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world. Nature Geoscience 1, 636639.
European Commission (2010 a). International Reference Life Cycle Data System (ILCD) Handbook - General Guide for Life Cycle Assessment – Detailed Guidance. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
European Commission (2010 b). Preparatory Study on Food Waste across EU27. Technical Report 2010–054. Brussels: European Commission. Available from: (verified 22 August 2013).
European Commission (2012). Life Cycle Indicators Framework: Development of Life Cycle Based Macro-level Monitoring Indicators for Resources, Products and Waste for the EU-27. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
European Council (2007). Council Directive 92/43EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora. Consolidated version 01.01.2007. Official Journal 1992L0043-EN-01.01.2007- 005·001, 166.
Eurostat (2013). Nutrient Budgets, EU-27, NO, CH. Methodology and Handbook. Version 1.02. Luxembourg: Eurostat and OECD.
Galli, A., Wiedmann, T., Ercin, E., Knoblauch, D., Ewing, B. & Giljum, S. (2012). Integrating ecological, carbon and water footprint into a ‘Footprint Family’ of indicators: definition and role in tracking human pressure on the planet. Ecological Indicators 16, 100112.
Hijmans, R. J., Cameron, S. E., Parra, J. L., Jones, P. G. & Jarvis, A. (2005). Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. International Journal of Climatology 25, 19651978.
Hoekstra, A. Y. & Mekonnen, M. M. (2012). The water footprint of humanity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, 32323237.
IPCC (2006). 2006 IPCC guidelines for national greenhouse gas inventories. Prepared by the National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Programme (Eds Eggleston, H. S., Buendia, L., Miwa, K., Ngara, T. & Tanabe, K.). Japan: IGES
Klimont, Z. & Brink, C. (2004). Modelling of Emissions of Air Pollutants and Greenhouse Gases from Agricultural Sources in Europe. Laxenburg, Austria: IIASA.
Leach, A. M., Galloway, J. N., Bleeker, A., Erisman, J. W., Kohn, R. & Kitzes, J. (2012). A nitrogen footprint model to help consumers understand their role in nitrogen losses to the environment. Environmental Development 1, 4066.
Leip, A., Weiss, F., Wassenaar, T., Perez-Dominguez, I., Fellmann, T., Loudjani, P., Tubiello, F., Grandgirard, D., Monni, S. & Biala, K. (2010). Evaluation of the Livestock Sector's Contribution to the EU Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GGELS) – Final Report. Brussels: European Commission, Joint Research Centre.
Leip, A., Achermann, B., Billen, G., Bleeker, A., Bouwman, A. F., de Vries, W., Dragosits, U., Döring, U., Fernall, D., Geupel, M., Herolstab, J., Johnes, P., Le Gall, A. C., Monni, S., Nevečeřal, R., Orlandini, L., Prud'homme, M., Reuter, H. I., Simpson, D., Seufert, G., Spranger, T., Sutton, M. A., van Aardenne, J., Voß, M. & Winiwarter, W. (2011 a). Integrating nitrogen fluxes at the European scale. In The European Nitrogen Assessment (Eds Sutton, M. A., Howard, C. M., Erisman, J. W., Billen, G., Bleeker, A., Grennfelt, P., van Grinsven, H. & Grizzetti, B.), pp. 345376. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Leip, A., Britz, W., Weiss, F. & de Vries, W. (2011 b). Farm, land, and soil nitrogen budgets for agriculture in Europe calculated with CAPRI. Environmental Pollution 159, 32433253.
Leip, A., Weiss, F. & Britz, W. (2011 c). Agri-Environmental Nitrogen Indicators for EU27. In Bio-Economic Models Applied to Agricultural Systems (Ed. Flichman, G.), pp. 109123. Dordrecht: Springer.
Lesschen, J. P., van den Berg, M., Westhoek, H. J., Witzke, H. P. & Oenema, O. (2011). Greenhouse gas emission profiles of European livestock sectors. Animal Feed Science and Technology 166–167, 1628.
Maes, J., Paracchini, M. L., Zulian, G., Dunbar, M. B. & Alkemade, R. (2012). Synergies and trade-offs between ecosystem service supply, biodiversity, and habitat conservation status in Europe. Biological Conservation 155, 112.
McIntyre, B. D., Herren, H. R., Wakhungu, J. & Watsn, R. T. (2009). Agriculture at a Crossroads. Synthesis Report: a Synthesis of the Global and Sub-Global IAASTD Reports. Washington, DC: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).
Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2011). The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 15, 15771600.
Nguyen, T. L. T., Hermansen, J. E. & Mogensen, L. (2010). Environmental consequences of different beef production systems in the EU. Journal of Cleaner Production 18, 756766.
Pelletier, N. & Leip, A. (2013). Quantifying anthropogenic mobilization, flows (in product systems) and emissions of fixed nitrogen in process-based environmental life cycle assessment: rationale, methods and application to a life cycle inventory. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. doi: 10.1007/s11367–013-0622-0
Simpson, D., Fagerli, H., Jonson, J. E., Tsyro, S., Wind, P., Tuovinen, J.-P. (2003). Transboundary Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground Level Ozone in Europe. PART I Unified EMEP Model Description. EMEP Report 1/2003. Oslo: Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
Simpson, D., Aas, W., Bartnicki, J., Berge, H., Bleeker, A., Cuvelier, K., Dentener, F., Dore, T., Erisman, J. W., Fagerli, H., Flechard, C., Hertel, O., van Jaarsveld, H., Jenkin, M., Schaap, M., Shamsudheen Semeena, V., Thunis, P., Vautard, R., Vieno, M. (2011). Atmospheric transport and deposition of reactive nitrogen in Europe. In European Nitrogen Assessment (Eds Sutton, M. A., Howard, C. M., Erisman, J. W., Billen, G., Bleeker, A., van Grinsven, H., Grennfelt, P. & Grizzetti, B.), pp. 298316. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Skiba, U., Fowler, D. & Smith, K. A. (1997). Nitric oxide emissions from agricultural soils in temperate and tropical climates: sources, controls and mitigation options. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 48, 139153.
Smaling, E. M. A., Roscoe, R., Lesschen, J. P., Bouwman, A. F. & Comunello, E. (2008). From forest to waste: Assessment of the Brazilian soybean chain, using nitrogen as a marker. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 128, 185197.
Soussana, J.-F., Tallec, T. & Blanfort, V. (2010). Mitigating the greenhouse gas balance of ruminant production systems through carbon sequestration in grasslands. Animal 4, 334350.
Sutton, M. A., Oenema, O., Erisman, J. W., Leip, A., van Grinsven, H. & Winiwarter, W. (2011 a). Too much of a good thing. Nature 472, 159161.
Sutton, M. A., Billen, G., Bleeker, A., Erisman, J. W., Grennfelt, P., Van Grinsven, H., Grizzetti, B., Howard, C. M. & Leip, A. (2011 b). European Nitrogen Assessment – technical summary. In The European Nitrogen Assessment (Eds Sutton, M. A., Howard, C. M., Erisman, J. W., Billen, G., Bleeker, A., Grennfelt, P., van Grinsven, H. & Grizzetti, B.), pp. xxxvlii. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
UNECE (2013). Guidance document on national nitrogen budgets. Economic and Social Council Economic Commission for Europe Executive Body for the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. Available at:
Vanham, D. & Bidoglio, G. (2013). A review on the indicator water footprint for the EU28. Ecological Indicators 26, 6175.
Velthof, G. L., Oudendag, D., Witzke, H. P., Asman, W. A. H., Klimont, Z. & Oenema, O. (2009). Integrated assessment of nitrogen losses from agriculture in EU-27 using MITERRA-EUROPE. Journal of Environmental Quality 38, 402417.
Weiss, F. & Leip, A. (2012). Greenhouse gas emissions from the EU livestock sector: A life cycle assessment carried out with the CAPRI model. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 149, 124134.
Westhoek, H., Rood, T., van den Berg, M., Janse, J., Nijdam, D., Reudink, M. & Stehfest, E. (2011). The Protein Puzzle. The Consumption and Production of Meat, Dairy and Fish in the European Union. The Hague: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
Wiedmann, T. & Minx, J. (2007). A definition of ‘carbon footprint’. In Ecological Economics Research Trends (Ed. Pertsova, C. C.), pp. 111. Happauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Agricultural Science
  • ISSN: 0021-8596
  • EISSN: 1469-5146
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-agricultural-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 12
Total number of PDF views: 165 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 890 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.