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Nitrogen (N) budgets of agricultural systems give important information for assessing the impact of N inputs on the environment, and identify levers for action.
N budgets of agro-ecosystems in the 27 EU countries are established for the year 2000, considering N inputs by fertiliser application, manure excretion, atmospheric deposition and crop fixation, and N outputs by plant uptake, gaseous emissions, mineralisation, leaching and runoff.
Country N budgets for agro-ecosystems are based on the models INTEGRATOR, IDEAg, MITERRA and IMAGE. Fine geographic distribution is depicted with the former two models, which have higher spatial resolution. INTEGRATOR is the only available model for calculating non-agricultural terrestrial N budgets systems.
Key findings/state of knowledge
For EU-27, the models estimate a comparable total N input in European agriculture, i.e. 23.3–25.7 Mton N yr−1, but N uptake varies largely from 11.3–15.4 Mton N yr−1, leading to total N surpluses varying from 10.4–13.2 Mton N yr−1. Despite this variation, the overall difference at EU-27 is small for the emissions of NH3 (2.8–3.1 Mton N yr−1) and N2O (0.33–0.43 Mton N yr−1) but estimates vary largely at a regional scale. The estimated sum of N leaching and runoff at EU-27 is roughly equal to the sum of NH3, N2O and NOx emissions to the atmosphere, but estimates vary by a factor two, from 2.7 to 6.3 Mton N yr−1.
The transfer of nitrogen by either farm management activities or natural processes (through the atmosphere and the hydrological network) can feed into the N cascade and lead to indirect and unexpected reactive nitrogen emissions.
This transfer can lead to large N deposition rates and impacts to sensitive ecosystems. It can also promote further N2O emission in areas where conditions are more favourable for denitrification.
In rural landscapes, the relevant scale is the scale where N is managed by farm activities and where environmental measures are applied.
Mitigating nitrogen at landscape scale requires consideration of the interactions between natural and anthropogenic (i.e. farm management) processes.
Owing to the complex nature and spatial extent of rural landscapes, experimental assessments of reactive N flows at this scale are difficult and often incomplete. It should include measurement of N flows in the different compartments of the environment and comprehensive datasets on the environment (soils, hydrology, land use, etc.) and on farm management.
Modelling is the preferred tool to investigate the complex relationships between anthropogenic and natural processes at landscape scale although verification by measurements is required. Up to now, no model includes all the components of landscape scale N flows: farm functioning, short range atmospheric transfer, hydrology and ecosystem modelling.
A large part of agricultural soils in Europe are exposed to high N inputs because of animal manure and chemical fertiliser use. Large parts of the European natural soils are exposed to high atmospheric N deposition.
High N inputs threaten soil quality, which may negatively affect food and biomass production and biodiversity and enhance emissions of harmful N compounds from soils to water and the atmosphere.
An overview of the major soil functions and soil threats are presented, including a description of the objectives of the European Soil Strategy.
The major N threats on soil quality for both agricultural and natural soils are related to changes in soil organic content and quality, soil acidification, and loss of soil diversity. These threats are described using literature.
Key findings/state of knowledge
Generally, N has a positive effect on soil quality of agricultural soils, because it enhances soil fertility and conditions for crop growth. However, it generally has a negative effect on soil quality of natural soils, because it results in changes in plant diversity.
Soil acts as a filter and buffer for N, and protects water and atmosphere against N pollution. However, the filter and buffer capacity of soils is frequently exceeded by excess of N in both agricultural and natural soils, which results in emission of N to the environment.
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