ETC DI Report 2022/01 Impacts of nutrients and heavy metals in European agriculture: Current and critical inputs in relation to air, soil and water quality

30 Mar 2022


Fertilizer and manure management is relevant for food production but simultaneously causes environmental impacts, due to adverse effects on air, soil and water quality. Impacts on air and water quality are specifically caused by losses of ammonia to air and nitrate and phosphate to water in response to enhanced nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) inputs, leading to eutrophication of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Impacts on soil quality are mainly due to the addition of heavy metals, which may cause impacts on soil biodiversity and, in case of cadmium, on food quality.

This report describes the spatial variation in critical concentrations/losses and inputs of N and P and of the four most abundant heavy metals, i.e. cadmium (Cd), copper (Cu), lead (Pb) and zinc (Zn), and their exceedance by current inputs. The results allow to identify spatial hot spots for environmental impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus inputs for the four most abundant heavy metals, and the possibility to protect the environment by improved management. More specifically, the spatial variation in the needed increase in N use efficiency to reconcile food production with environmental protection is presented. It is shown that in some intensive agricultural production regions, crop production and environmental thresholds cannot be reconciled by an increase in NUEs only and a reduction in crop or livestock production is inevitable to fully protect the environment. it thus informs policy processes important for planning and guiding sustainable nutrient and soil management, such as the farm to fork strategy and the zero pollution strategy.