An integrated approach to a nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) indicator for the food production-consumption chain

Jan Willem Erisman*, Allison Leach, Albert Bleeker, Brooke Atwell, Lia Cattaneo, James Galloway

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Reducing nitrogen pollution across the food chain requires the use of clear and comprehensive indicators to track and manage losses. The challenge is to derive an easy-to-use robust nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) indicator for entire food systems to help support policy development, monitor progress and inform consumers. Based on a comparison of four approaches to NUE (life cycle analysis, nitrogen footprint, nitrogen budget, and environmental impact assessment), we propose an indicator for broader application at the national scale: The whole food chain (NUEFC), which is defined as the ratio of the protein (expressed as nitrogen) available for human consumption to the (newly fixed and imported) nitrogen input to the food system. The NUEFC was calculated for a set of European countries between 1980 and 2011. A large variation in NUEFC was observed within countries in Europe, ranging from 10% in Ireland to 40% in Italy in 2008. The NUEFC can be used to identify factors that influence it (e.g., the share of biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) in new nitrogen, the imported and exported products and the consumption), which can be used to propose potential improvements on the national scale.

Original languageEnglish
Article number925
Pages (from-to)1-29
Number of pages29
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 22 Mar 2018


Acknowledgments: The authors gratefully acknowledge financial support from Fertilizers Europe. We acknowledge the comments and suggestions of the members of the EU Nitrogen Expert Panel on draft versions. We are very grateful for the input from Oene Oenema and David Powlson and their helpful comments on the methodology development.

FundersFunder number
Department of Environmental Science
Fertilizers Europe
Netherlands Department of Natural & The Environment and The Sustainability Institute
Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
Netherlands Faculty of Science, Earth and Climate
VU University
University of New Hampshire
University of Virginia


    • Budget
    • Europe
    • Food chain
    • Nitrogen use efficiency


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