, Volume 114, Issue 1, pp 11-23

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Intentional versus unintentional nitrogen use in the United States: trends, efficiency and implications

  • Benjamin Z. HoultonAffiliated withUniversity of California Email author 
  • , Elizabeth BoyerAffiliated withPennsylvania State University
  • , Adrien FinziAffiliated withBoston University
  • , James GallowayAffiliated withUniversity of Virginia
  • , Allison LeachAffiliated withUniversity of Virginia
  • , Daniel LiptzinAffiliated withUniversity of California
  • , Jerry MelilloAffiliated withMarine Biological Laboratory
  • , Todd S. RosenstockAffiliated withThe World Agroforestry Centre
  • , Dan SobotaAffiliated withNational Research Council (with US EPA)
    • , Alan R. TownsendAffiliated withUniversity of Colorado


Human actions have both intentionally and unintentionally altered the global economy of nitrogen (N), with both positive and negative consequences for human health and welfare, the environment and climate change. Here we examine long-term trends in reactive N (Nr) creation and efficiencies of Nr use within the continental US. We estimate that human actions in the US have increased Nr inputs by at least ~5 times compared to pre-industrial conditions. Whereas N2 fixation as a by-product of fossil fuel combustion accounted for ~1/4 of Nr inputs from the 1970s to 2000 (or ~7 Tg N year−1), this value has dropped substantially since then (to <5 Tg N year−1), owing to Clean Air Act amendments. As of 2007, national N use efficiency (NUE) of all combined N inputs was equal to ~40 %. This value increases to 55 % when considering intentional N inputs alone, with food, industrial goods, fuel and fiber production accounting for the largest Nr sinks, respectively. We estimate that 66 % of the N lost during the production of goods and services enters the air (as NO x , NH3, N2O and N2), with the remaining 34 % lost to various waterways. These Nr losses contribute to smog formation, acid rain, eutrophication, biodiversity declines and climate change. Hence we argue that an improved national NUE would: (i) benefit the US economy on the production side; (ii) reduce social damage costs; and (iii) help avoid some major climate change risks in the future.


Nitrogen Climate Efficiency United States Carbon Phosphorus Economics