Nitrogen on the table

Nitrogen on the table

This report examines these losses from the EU agri-food system further by (i) allocating nitrogen losses to food commodity groups (to determine nitrogen ‘footprints’) and (ii) by exploring the effect of alternative diets on nitrogen emissions, greenhouse gas emissions and land use. There are large differences between food commodities in terms of nitrogen losses per unit of protein produced. Plantbased foods, such as cereals, have relatively low losses while livestock products have much higher losses. Nitrogen losses per unit of food protein from beef are more than 25 times those from cereals. For pig and poultry meat, eggs and dairy, the losses are 3.5 to 8 times those from cereals [2.3.2]. Corresponding values for nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) are low for meat and dairy products (5-30%) as compared with plant-commodities (45-75%).

The results show that livestock production chains have a high share in nitrogen losses. Around 81-87% of the total emissions related to EU agriculture of ammonia, nitrate and of nitrous oxide are related to livestock production [2.3.2]. In these values for livestock production the emissions related to feed production (as cereals and fodder crops) are included. 

The current average nitrogen ‘footprint’4 per person differs by a factor 2-4 between European countries, mainly as a result of differences in average food consumption patterns. Countries with high intake of animal products (such as France and Denmark) in general have considerably larger nitrogen footprints than countries with a low intake of animal products (such as Bulgaria and Slovakia). Overall for the EU-27, 52% of protein intake comes from meat, with 34% from dairy, 7% from eggs and 7% from fish and other seafood.

The current average per capita protein intake in the EU is about 70% higher than would be required according to the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. This provides opportunities for a shift towards a change in European food consumption habits with lower nitrogen footprints, reducing adverse environmental impacts on water, air and soil quality, climate and biodiversity. The current intake of saturated fats is 42% higher than the recommended maximum dietary intake, leading to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. As 80% of saturated fats originate from animal products, a reduction in animal products would in general be favourable to human health as well.

Recommended citation

Westhoek H., Lesschen J.P., Leip A., Rood T., Wagner S., De Marco A., Murphy-Bokern D., Pallière C., Howard C.M., Oenema O. & Sutton M.A. (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 & Hydrology, Edinburgh, UK.

The report is available on-line at

Hardcopy versions (subject to availability) can also be requested on-line, or purchased from

Journal or Publication Title: 

Nirogen on the Table


Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), Edinburgh UK, on behalf of Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen, of the UNECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution


Westhoek H., Lesschen J.P., Leip A., Rood T., Wagner S., De Marco A., Murphy-Bokern D., Pallière C., Howard C.M., Oenema O. & Sutton M.A.

Year of Publication: 


PDF attachment: 

ISBN Number: