At a glance
- The five-year average of nitrogen surplus of the total balance per hectare of utilized agricultural land has decreased by 21 % since 1992.
- The Federal Government aims to reduce the average nitrogen surplus of the total balance of the years 2028 to 2032 to 70 kilogrammes per hectare of agricultural land.
- If the current trend continues, the target will be missed.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for all living organisms. However, excessive input of reactive nitrogen compounds to the environment has serious effects on the climate, biodiversity and landscape quality. For example, nitrogen which is not utilized by plants may lead to pollution of the groundwater, nutrient enrichment (eutrophication) of waterbodies, acidification of terrestrial ecosystems and the formation of greenhouse gases. An introduction to the issue of nitrogen surplus is given in the publication ’Reactive nitrogen in Germany‘ (UBA 2015) and in the UBA-Umweltatlas "Reaktiver Stickstoff" (in German only).
In Germany problems occur especially in regions with high livestock density: Due to the high amount of farm manure (animal excrements), often more nitrogen is applied to the fields as the crops can convert into biomass. The nitrogen surplus derived from the total balance is an indicator of the potential nitrogen losses from agriculture to the environment.
Assessing the development
Between 1992 and 2017, the 5-year average nitrogen surplus of the total balance per hectare of agricultural land decreased by around 21 %. Farmers are using nitrogen more efficiently, the area of cultivation of high-output crops has increased and feed conversion by domestic animals has improved. However, the nitrogen balance indicates that only half of the total nitrogen input is removed by agricultural products (BMEL 2020, Statistical Monthly Report, MBT-0111260-000, in German only).
After the former target of the Strategy for Sustainable Development of 2002 had been missed, the Federal Government formulated a new target in the revised version of the Sustainable Development Strategy in 2016: the nitrogen surplus should not exceed 70 kg/ha on average for the years 2028 to 2032 (BReg 2016). This target is still valid today.
One of the key instruments to meet this target is the fertilizer legislation. It was fundamentally revised in 2020 to prevent penalties as a result of the European Court of Justice ruling against Germany for violating the EU Nitrate Directive. At present, the effects of the new fertilizer legislation cannot be forecasted. Whether additional adjustments will be necessary largely depends on the design of the Material Flow Balance Ordinance and the additional measures applied to areas with high nitrate levels in groundwater bodies. Up to now, the UBA expects that additional efforts will be necessary for a comprehensive protection of climate and environment.
The nitrogen surplus is determined from the total agricultural nitrogen balance. It is the difference between the input (e.g. fertiliser, feed, seed and seedlings, atmospheric inputs) and the output (animal and plant products) of the national farm-gate balance. The data are calculated by the Julius-Kühn-Institute and the University of Gießen and are published annually by the BMEL. Hints to the calculation method can be found in Bach et al. 2011 (in German only) and Häußermann et al. 2019 (in German only). The data are published annually by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL). In order to adjust for annual fluctuations a five-year moving average is calculated from the values of the individual years with the two previous and two following years.
More detailed information: 'Stickstoffeintrag aus der Landwirtschaft und Stickstoffüberschuss' (in German only).