Nitrogen use efficiency in the food system is between 5% and 15% which indicates “huge” losses to the environment, a new report by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL has shown.

The dependency of the food system on fossil fuel-based fertilisers has led to a “devastating” impact on the environment, while 85% to 95% of nitrogen applied to the soil is lost.

The current annual nitrogen surplus is double the amount that is safe for the planet, and researchers now call on industry and governments to develop plans for a 50% cut in nitrogen use.

Credible commitment from governments to full cost accounting, credible signals from agriculture, the food sector, and society are needed now, researcher said.

The report titled “Less, better, and circular use – how to get rid of surplus nitrogen without endangering food security” has been published today (Thursday, November 2).

“The existing intergovernmental, national, and industry-led initiatives to tackle the nitrogen problem are ineffective.

“Those with ambitious goals lack power for implementation, and those with implementation power lack ambition,” lead author of the report, Adrian Muller said.

Nitrogen use

Excessive nitrogen use has severe environmental consequences, including biodiversity loss, soil and freshwater degradation, and substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Although the solutions are known – “use nitrogen better, use it circularly, and use less” – the report notes that not all the regions of the world are the same.

High-income countries with intensive agriculture show “huge” regional nitrogen surpluses and losses compared to many lower-income countries, particularly in Africa.


The lack of access to nitrogen in Africa leads to soil nitrogen mining and degradation. Thus, nitrogen use reduction is not central but nitrogen recycling should be increased.

The supply chain of mineral fertilisers results in significant GHG emissions, accounting for about 10% of agricultural and 2% of global emissions, the report found.

Nitrogen use efficiency should be increased, the report authors said, by decreasing food waste and focusing on producing human food versus animal feed.