Nitrogen (N) management presents a sustainability dilemma: N is strongly linked to energy and food production, but excess reactive N causes environmental pollution. The N footprint is an indicator that quantifies reactive N losses to the environment from consumption and production of food and the use of energy. The average per capita N footprint (calculated using the N-Calculator methodology) of ten countries varies from 15 to 47 kg N capita−1 year−1. The major cause of the difference is the protein consumption rates and food production N losses. The food sector dominates all countries’ N footprints. Global connections via trade significantly affect the N footprint in countries that rely on imported foods and feeds. The authors present N footprint reduction strategies (e.g., improve N use efficiency, increase N recycling, reduce food waste, shift dietary choices) and identify knowledge gaps (e.g., the N footprint from nonfood goods and soil N process).
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Bellarby, J., R. Tirado, A. Leip, F. Weiss, J.P. Lesschen, and P. Smith. 2013. Livestock greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potential in Europe. Global Change Biology 19: 3–18.
Bleeker, A., M. Sutton, W. Winiwater, and A. Leip. 2012. Economy-wide nitrogen balances and indicators: Concept and methodology. ENV/EPOC/WPEI 4: 3–22.
Bodirsky, B.L., A. Popp, H. Lotze-Campen, J.P. Dietrich, S. Rolinski, I. Weindl, C. Schmitz, C. Müller, et al. 2014. Reactive nitrogen requirements to feed the world in 2050 and potential to mitigate nitrogen pollution. Nature Communications 5: 3858. doi:10.1038/ncomms4858.
Dalgaard, T., B. Hansen, B. Hasler, O. Hertel, N.J. Hutchings, B.H. Jacobsen, L.S. Jensen, B. Kronvang, et al. 2014. Policies for agricultural nitrogen management: Trends, challenges and prospects for improved efficiency in Denmark. Environmental Research Letters 9: 115002.
Emerson, J.W., A. Hsu, M.A. Levy, A. de Sherbinin, V. Mara, D.C. Esty, and M. Jaiteh. 2012. 2012 Environmental Performance Index and Pilot Trend Environmental Performance Index. New Haven: Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.
Erisman, J.W., W. De Vries, H. Kros, O. Oenema, L. Van Der Eerden, H. Van Zeijts, and S. Smeulders. 2001. An outlook for a national integrated nitrogen policy. Environmental Science & Policy 4: 87–95.
Erisman, J.W., N. Domburg, W. de Vries, H. Kros, B. de Haan, and K. Sanders. 2005. The Dutch N-cascade in the European perspective. Science in China. Series C, Life Sciences 48: 827–842.
Erisman, J.W., J.N. Galloway, S. Seitzinger, A. Bleeker, N.B. Dise, R. Petrescu, A.M. Leach, and W. de Vries. 2013. Consequences of human modification of the global nitrogen cycle. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 368: 20130116. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0116.
Erisman, J.W., J.A. Galloway, M.S. Sutton, Z. Klimont, and W. Winiwater. 2008. How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world. Nature Geoscience 1: 636–639.
Fowler, D., M. Coyle, U. Skiba, M.A. Sutton, J.N. Cape, S. Reis, L.J. Sheppard, A. Jenkins, et al. 2013. The global nitrogen cycle in the 21st century. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 368: 20130164. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0164.
Freney, J.R. 2011. Management practices to increase efficiency of fertilizer and animal nitrogen and minimize nitrogen loss to the atmosphere and groundwater. In Proceedings of the International Seminar on Increased Agricultural Nitrogen Circulation in Asia: Technological Challenge to Mitigate Agricultural N Emissions. Taipei, Taiwan.
Galloway, J.N., J.D. Aber, J.W. Erisman, S.P. Seitzinger, R.W. Howarth, E.B. Cowling, and B.J. Cosby. 2003. The nitrogen cascade. BioScience 53: 341–356.
Galloway, J.N., F.J. Dentener, D.G. Capone, E.W. Boyer, R.W. Howarth, S.P. Seitzinger, G.P. Asner, C.C. Cleveland, et al. 2004. Nitrogen cycles: Past, present and future. Biogeochemistry 70: 153–226.
Galloway, J.N., A.R. Townsend, J.W. Erisman, M. Bekunda, Z. Cai, J.R. Freney, L.A. Martinelli, S.P. Seitzinger, et al. 2008. Transformation of the nitrogen cycle: Recent trends, questions, and potential solutions. Science 320: 889–892.
Galloway, J.N., A.M. Leach, A. Bleeker, and J.W. Erisman. 2013. A chronology of human understanding of the nitrogen cycle. Philosophical Transactions B 368: 20130120. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0120.
Galloway, N.J., W. Winiwarter, A. Leip, A.M. Leach, A. Bleeker, and J.W. Erisman. 2014. Nitrogen footprints: Past, present and future. Environmental Research Letters 9: 115003.
Geoscience Australia and BREE. 2014. Australian Energy Resource Assessment, 2nd ed. Canberra: Geoscience Australia.
Giller, K.E., P. Chalk, A. Dobermann, L. Hammond, P. Heffer, J.K. Ladha, P. Nyamudeza, L. Maene, et al. 2004. Emerging technologies to increase the efficiency of use of fertilizer nitrogen. In Agriculture and the nitrogen cycle: Assessing the impacts of fertilizer use on food production and the environment, ed. A.R. Mosier, J.K. Syers, and J.R. Freney, 35–51. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Graversgaard M., T. Dalgaard, A.M. Leach, L.R. Cattaneo, and J.N. Galloway. 2016. The Danish nitrogen footprint: Applying nitrogen footprints to build awareness about protein consumption and using policy scenarios to change behavior. In Proceedings of the 7th International Nitrogen Initiative Conference, Submitted.
Gu, B., Y. Ge, Y. Ren, B. Xu, W. Luo, H. Jiang, B. Gu, and J. Chang. 2012. Atmospheric reactive nitrogen in China: Sources, recent trends, and damage costs. Environmental Science and Technology 46: 9420–9427.
Gu, B., A.M. Leach, L. Ma, J.N. Galloway, S.X. Chang, Y. Ge, and J. Chang. 2013a. Nitrogen footprint in China: food, energy, and nonfood goods. Environmental Science and Technology 47: 9217–9224.
Gu, B., J. Chang, Y. Min, Y. Ge, Q. Zhu, J.N. Galloway, and C. Peng. 2013b. The role of industrial nitrogen in the global nitrogen biogeochemical cycle. Scientific Reports 3: 2579.
Gu, B., X. Ju, J. Chang, Y. Ge, and P.M. Vitousek. 2015. Integrated reactive nitrogen budgets and future trends in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112: 8792–8797.
Gustavsson, J., C. Cederberg, and U. Sonesson. 2011. Global food losses and food waste: Extent, causes and prevention. Study conducted for the International Congress SAVE FOOD! At Interpack2011, Düsseldorf/Germany. FAO, Rome. www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e00.pdf.
Lassaletta, L., G. Billen, B. Grizzetti, J. Garnier, A.M. Leach, and J.N. Galloway. 2014. Food and feed trade as a driver in the global nitrogen cycle: 50-year trends. Biogeochemistry 118: 225–241.
Leach, A.M., J.N. Galloway, A. Bleeker, J.W. Erisman, R. Khon, and J. Kitzes. 2012. A nitrogen footprint model to help consumers understand their role in nitrogen losses to the environment. Environmental Development 1: 40–66.
Leach, A.M., A.N. Majidi, J.N. Galloway, and A.J. Greene. 2013. Towards institutional sustainability: a nitrogen footprint model for a university. Sustainability: The Journal of Record 6: 211–219.
Leach, A.M., K.A. Emery, J. Gephart, K.F. Davis, J.W. Erisman, A. Leip, M.L. Pace, P. D’Odorico, et al. 2016. Environmental impact food labels combining carbon, nitrogen, and water footprints. Food Policy 61: 213–223.
Leip, A., A. Leach, P. Musinguzi, T. Tumwesigye, G. Olupot, J.S. Tenywa, J. Mudiope, O. Hutton, et al. 2014a. Nitrogen-neutrality: A step towards sustainability. Environmental Research Letters 9: 115001. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/11/115001.
Leip, A., F. Weiss, J.P. Lesschen, and H. Westhoek. 2014b. The nitrogen footprint of food products in the European Union. The Journal of Agricultural Science 152: 20–33.
Ma, L., F. Wang, W. Zhang, W. Ma, G. Velthof, W. Qin, O. Oenema, and F. Zhang. 2013. Environmental assessment of management options for nutrient flows in the food chain in China. Environmental Science and Technology 47: 7260–7268.
Makino, M. 2011. Fisheries management in Japan: Its institutional features and case studies, vol. 34. Dordrecht: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-1777-0.
OECD. 2008. Environmental Performance of Agriculture in OECD Countries since 1990. ISBN 978-92-64-04092-2.
Oenema, O. 2004. Governmental policies and measures regulating nitrogen and phosphorus from animal manure in European agriculture. Journal of Animal Science 82: 196–206.
Oita, A., A. Malik, K. Kanemoto, A. Geschke, S. Nishijima, and M. Lenzen. 2016a. Substantial nitrogen pollution embedded in international trade. Nature Geoscience 9: 111–115.
Oita, A., I. Nagano, and I. Matsuda. 2016b. An improved methodology for calculating the nitrogen footprint of seafood. Ecological Indicators 60: 1091–1103.
Origin. 2015. Coal in Australia. Origin Energy, Australia, Retrieved 22 July 2016, from https://www.originenergy.com.au/blog/about-energy/coal-in-australia.html.
Pierer, M., W. Winiwarter, A.M. Leach, and J.N. Galloway. 2014. The nitrogen footprint of food products and general consumption patterns in Austria. Food Policy 49: 128–136.
Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F.S. Chapin III, E.F. Lambin, T.M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461: 472–475.
Shibata, H., L.R. Cattaneo, A.M. Leach, and J.N. Galloway. 2014. First approach to the Japanese nitrogen footprint model to predict the loss of nitrogen to the environment. Environmental Research Letters 9: 115013. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/11/115013.
Shindo, J. 2012. Changes in the nitrogen balance in agricultural land in Japan and 12 other Asian Countries based on a nitrogen-flow model. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 94: 47–61.
Steffen, W., K. Richardson, J. Rockström, S.E. Cornell, I. Fetzer, E.M. Bennett, R. Biggs, S.R. Carpenter, et al. 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347: 1259855.
Stevens, C.J., A.M. Leach, S. Dale, and J.N. Galloway. 2014. Personal nitrogen footprint tool for the United Kingdom. Environmental Sciences Processes Impacts 16: 1563–1569.
Sutton, M.A., O. Oenema, J.E. Erisman, A. Leip, H. Van Grinsven, and W. Wilfried Winiwarter. 2011. Too much of a good thing. Nature 472: 159–161.
Sutton, M.A., A. Bleeker, C.M. Howard, J.W. Erisman, Y.P. Abrol, M. Bekunda, A. Datta, E. Davidson, et al. 2013. Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh on behalf of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management and the International Nitrogen Initiative.
Takemasa, M. 1998. Nutritional strategies to reduce nutrient waste in livestock and poultry production. Chemistry & Biology 36: 720–726 (in Japanese).
Tilman, D., and M. Clark. 2015. Food, agriculture & the environment: Can we feed the world & save the earth? Dædalus 144: 8–23.
van Grinsven, H.J.M., H.F.M. Ten Berge, T. Dalgaard, B. Fraters, P. Durand, A. Hart, G. Hofman, B.H. Jacobsen, et al. 2012. Management, regulation and environmental impacts of nitrogen fertilization in northwestern Europe under the Nitrates Directive: A benchmark study. Biogeosciences 9: 5143–5160.
Vanham, D., F. Bouraoui, A. Leip, B. Grizzetti, and G. Bidoglio. 2015. Lost water and nitrogen resources due to EU consumer food waste. Environmental Research Letters 10: 84008–84022.
Vitousek, P.M., D.N.L. Menge, S.C. Reed, and C.C. Cleveland. 2013. Biological nitrogen fixation: Rates, patterns, and ecological controls in terrestrial ecosystems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 368: 20130119. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0119.
Westhoek, H., J.P. Lesschen, T. Rood, S. Wagner, A. De Marco, D. Murphy-Bokern, A. Leip, H. Van Grinsven, et al. 2014. Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake. Global Environmental Change. Elsevier Ltd. 26: 196–205.
Westhoek H., J.P. Lesschen, A. Leip, T. Rood, S. Wagner, A. De Marco, D. Murphy-Bokern, C. Pallière, et al. 2015. Nitrogen on the table: The influence of food choices on nitrogen emissions and the European environment. (European Nitrogen Assessment Special Report on Nitrogen and Food.). Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh, UK.
Winiwarter, W., J.W. Erisman, J.N. Gallowaym, Z. Klimont, and M. Sutton. 2013. Estimating environmental loads of reactive nitrogen in the 21st century. Climate Change 120: 889–901.
World Nuclear Association. 2015. Australia’s Electricity. Retrieved 22 July, 2016, from http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/appendices/australia-s-electricity.aspx.
We would like to thank all participants of the International Nitrogen Footprint Workshop held in Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan in March 16-18th, 2015 for helping to develop this manuscript. We also would like to thank the funding support for the workshop from The KAITEKI Institute Inc., Japan; Green Network of Excellence - Environmental information (funded by Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan); National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences, Japan; National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan; Ministry of Education, Taiwan; National Dong Hwa University, Taiwan; Advanced Research and Education Center for Steel (ARECS), Tohoku University, Japan. This research was also partly supported by Science and technology research promotion program for agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food industry; Environment Research and Technology Development Fund (S-15) of the Ministry of the Environment, Japan. This is a contribution to the N-PRINT project (www.n-print.org), the www.dNmark.org research alliance, and to the International Nitrogen Initiative (www.initrogen.org).
About this article
Cite this article
Shibata, H., Galloway, J.N., Leach, A.M. et al. Nitrogen footprints: Regional realities and options to reduce nitrogen loss to the environment. Ambio 46, 129–142 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-016-0815-4
- Nitrogen cycle
- Nitrogen effects
- Nitrogen footprint
- Nitrogen use efficiency