Plant and Soil

, Volume 228, Issue 1, pp 3–15 | Cite as

The impact of humans on the nitrogen cycle, with focus on temperate arable agriculture

  • D. S. Jenkinson


The 6 billion people alive today consume about 25 million tonnes of protein nitrogen each year, a requirement that could well increase to 40–45 million tonnes by 2050. Most of them ultimately depend on the Haber-Bosch process to fix the atmospheric N2 needed to grow at least part of their protein and, over the earth as a whole, this dependency is likely to increase. Humans now fix some 160 million tonnes of nitrogen per year, of which 98 are fixed industrially by the Haber-Bosch process (83 for use as agricultural fertilizer, 15 for industry), 22 during combustion and the rest is fixed during the cultivation of leguminous crops and fodders. These 160 million tonnes have markedly increased the burden of combined nitrogen entering rivers, lakes and shallow seas, as well as increasing the input of NH3, N2O, NO and NO2 to the atmosphere. Nitrogen fertilizers give large economic gains in modern farming systems and under favourable conditions can be used very efficiently. Losses of nitrogen occur from all systems of agriculture, with organic manures being particularly difficult to use efficiently. Although nitrate leaching has received much attention as an economic loss, a cause of eutrophication and a health hazard, gaseous emissions may eventually prove to be the most serious environmentally. Scientists working on the use and fate of nitrogen fertilizers must be careful, clear headed and vigilant in looking for unexpected side effects.

economic value of nitrogen fertilizer fertilizer nitrogen losses global nitrogen cycling human nitrogen requirements nitrate leaching nitrogen fertilizers nitrogen pollution 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Addiscott T M, Whitmore A P and Powlson D S 1991 Farming, Fertilizers and the Nitrate Problem. CAB International, Wallingford, Oxon, UK.Google Scholar
  2. Ågren G L and Bosatta E 1996 Theoretical Ecosystem Ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  3. Allison F E 1955 The enigma of soil nitrogen balance sheets. Adv. Agron. 7, 213-250.Google Scholar
  4. Appl M 1997 Ammonia, Methanol, Hydrogen, Carbon Monoxide: Modern Production Technologies. CRU Publishing Ltd, London, UK.Google Scholar
  5. Ashman W A H, Sutton M A and Schjorring J K 1998 Ammonia: emission, atmospheric transport and deposition. New Phytol. 139, 27-48.Google Scholar
  6. Avery D T 1998 Saving the planet with pesticides, biotechnology and European farm reform. In The Bawden Memorial Lectures. Ed. T Lewis, pp 309-323. The British Crop Protection Council, Farnham, UK.Google Scholar
  7. Barrett J H, Parslow R C, McKinney P A, Law G R and Forman D 1998 Nitrate in drinking water and the incidence of gastric, esophageal and brain cancer in Yorkshire. Cancer Causes and Control 9, 153-159.Google Scholar
  8. Benjamin N and McKnight G 1999 Metabolism of nitrate in humans-implications for nitrate intake. In Managing Risks of Nitrates to Humans and the Environment. Eds. WS Wilson, AS Ball and R Hinton. pp 281-288. Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  9. Berglund M, Bostrom C E, Bylin G, Ewetz L, Gustafsson L, Moldeus P, Norberg S, Pershagen G and Victorin K 1993 Health evaluation of nitrogen oxides. Scand. J. Work, Envir. Health 19, 1-72.Google Scholar
  10. Bouwman A F, Vanderhoek K W and Olivier J G J 1995 Uncertainties in the global source distribution of nitrous oxide. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 2785-2800.Google Scholar
  11. Bradbury N J, Whitmore A P, Hart P B S and Jenkinson D S 1993 Modelling the fate of nitrogen in crop and soil in the years following application of 15N-labelled fertilizer to winter wheat. J.Agric. Sci., Camb. 121, 363-379.Google Scholar
  12. Brookes P C 1993 The potential of microbiological properties as indicators in soil pollution monitoring. In Soil Monitoring. Eds. R Schulin, A Desaules, R Webster and B Von Steigen. pp 229-254. Birkhaüser Verlag, Basel, Switzerland.Google Scholar
  13. Burns L C, Stevens R J and Laughlin R J 1996 Production of nitrite by simultaneous nitrification and denitrification. Soil Biol. Biochem. 28, 609-616.Google Scholar
  14. Bussink D W and Oenema O 1998 Ammonia volatilization from dairy farming systems in temperate areas: A review. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosys. 51, 19-33.Google Scholar
  15. Campbell C A, Myers R J K and Curtin D 1995 Managing nitrogen for sustainable crop production. Fert. Res. 42, 277-296.Google Scholar
  16. Canter LW 1997 Nitrates in Groundwater. CRC Press, Boca Raton, USA. 263 p.Google Scholar
  17. Carpenter S R, Caraco N F, Correll D L, Howarth R W, Sharpley A N and Smith V H 1998 Nonpoint pollution of surface waters with phosphorus and nitrogen. Ecol. Appl. 8, 559-568.Google Scholar
  18. Chan T Y K 1996 Food-borne nitrates and nitrites as a cause of methaemoglobinemia. Southeast Asian J. Tropical Medicine and Pub. Health 27, 189-192.Google Scholar
  19. Chaney K 1990 Effect of nitrogen fertilizer rate on soil nitrate content after harvesting winter wheat. J. Agric. Sci., Camb. 114, 171-176.Google Scholar
  20. Cohen J E 1995 How Many People Can The World Support? Norton, New York, USA. 532 p.Google Scholar
  21. Davidson E A and Kingerlee W 1997 A global inventory of nitric oxide emissions from soils. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosyst. 48, 37-50.Google Scholar
  22. Duyzer J H, Verhagen H L M, Weststrate J H, Bosveld F C and Vermetten A W M 1994 The dry deposition of ammonia onto a Douglas Fir forest in the Netherlands. Atmosph. Environ. 28, 1241-1253.Google Scholar
  23. Eckersten H, Hansson P E and Johnsson H 1996 SOILN user's manual. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden.Google Scholar
  24. Evans L T 1998 Feeding the Ten Billion. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  25. Falkenmark M 1997 Meeting water requirements of an expanding world population. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. 352, 929-936.Google Scholar
  26. Fenn ME, Poth MA, Aber J D, Baron J S, Bormann B T, Johnson D W, Lemly A D, McNulty S C, Ryan D E and Stottlemyer R 1998 Nitrogen excess in North American ecosystems: predisposing factors, ecosystem responses and management strategies. Ecol. Appl. 8, 706-733.Google Scholar
  27. Ferm M 1998 Atmospheric ammonia and ammonium transport in Europe and critical loads: A review. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosyst. 51, 5-17.Google Scholar
  28. Fischer G and Heilig G K 1997 Population momentum and the demand on land and water resources. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. 352, 869-889.Google Scholar
  29. Follett R F 1989 Nitrogen Management and Ground Water Protection. Elsevier Science Publishers, Amsterdam, Netherlands.Google Scholar
  30. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 1997 Fertilizer Yearbook Vol 47. Rome, Italy.Google Scholar
  31. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 1998 The State of Food and Agriculture. FAO, Rome, Italy. 371 p.Google Scholar
  32. Fowler D, Flechard C, Skiba U, Coyle M and Cape J N 1998 The atmospheric burden of oxidised nitrogen and its role in ozone formation and deposition. New Phytol. 139, 11-23.Google Scholar
  33. Galloway J N 1995 Acid deposition: perspectives in time and space. Wat. Air Soil Pollut. 85, 15-24.Google Scholar
  34. Galloway J N, Schlesinger WH, Levy H, Michaels A and Schnoor J L 1995 Anthropogenic enhancement-environmental response. Global Biogeochem. Cycles 9, 235-252.Google Scholar
  35. Golden M and Liefert C 1999 Potential risks and benefits of dietary nitrate. In Managing Risks of Nitrates to Humans and the Environment. Eds. WS Wilson, AS Ball and R Hinton. pp 269-280. Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  36. Goss M J, Howse K R, Christian D G, Catt J A and Pepper T J 1998 Nitrate leaching: Modifying the loss from mineralized organic matter. E. J. Soil Sci. 49, 649-659.Google Scholar
  37. Goulding K W T, Bailey N J, Bradbury N J, Hargreaves P, Howe M, Murphy D W, Poulton P R and Willison T W 1998 Nitrogen deposition and its contribution to nitrogen cycling and associated soil processes. New Phytol. 139, 49-58.Google Scholar
  38. Groot J J R, De Willigen P and Verberne E L J 1991 Nitrogen Turnover in the Soil-Crop System. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.Google Scholar
  39. Hansen S, Jensen H E, Nielsen N E and Svendsen H 1993 User's guide to the DAISY simulation model. The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Copenhagen, Denmark.Google Scholar
  40. Hart P B S, Powlson D S, Poulton P R, Johnston A E and Jenkinson D S 1993 The availability of the nitrogen in the crop residues of winter wheat to subsequent crops. J. Agric. Sci., Camb. 121, 355-362.Google Scholar
  41. Holland E A, Braswell B H, Lamarque J-F, Townsend A, Sulzman J, Muller J-F, Dentener F, Brasseur F, Levy H, Penner J E and Roelofs G-J 1997 Variations in the predicted spatial distribution of atmospheric nitrogen deposition and their impact on carbon uptake by terrestrial ecosystems. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 15849-15866.Google Scholar
  42. Hudson R J M, Gherini S A and Goldstein R A 1994 Modeling the global carbon cycle-nitrogen fertilization of the terrestrial biosphere and the missing CO2 sink. Global Biogeochem. Cycles 8, 307-333.Google Scholar
  43. Hutsch BW, Webster C P and Powlson D S 1994 Methane oxidation as affected by land use, soil pH and nitrogen fertilization. Soil Biol. Biochem. 26, 1613-1622.Google Scholar
  44. International Fertilizer Industry Association 1998 The Fertilizer Industry, World Food Supplies and the Environment. IFA & UNEP, Paris, France.Google Scholar
  45. Jarvis S C, Stockdale E A, Shepherd MA and Powlson D S 1996 Nitrogen mineralization in temperate agricultural soils: Processes and measurement. Adv. Agron. 57, 187-235.Google Scholar
  46. Jarvis S C and Pain B F 1997 Gaseous Nitrogen Emissions from Grassland. CAB International, Wallingford, UK.Google Scholar
  47. Jenkinson D S 1990 An introduction to the global nitrogen cycle. Soil Use Manag. 6, 56-61.Google Scholar
  48. Lampkin N 1990 Organic Farming. Farming Press, Ipswich, UK.Google Scholar
  49. Lampkin N and Measures M 1999 Organic Farm Management Handbook. Welsh Institute of Rural Studies, University of Aberystwyth.Google Scholar
  50. Lawes J B and Gilbert J H 1863 The effect of different manures on the mixed herbage of grassland. J. Roy. Ag. Soc. England 24, 131-167.Google Scholar
  51. Ledgard S F and Giller K E 1995 Atmospheric N2 fixation as an alternative N source. In Nitrogen Fertilization in the Environment. Ed. PE Bacon. pp 443-486. Marcel Dekker, New York, USA.Google Scholar
  52. Lee D S, Kohler I, Grobler E, Rohrer F, Sausen R, GallardoKlenner L, Olivier J G J, Dentener F J and Bouwman A F 1997 Estimations of global NOx emissions and their uncertainties. Atmos. Environ. 31, 1735-1749.Google Scholar
  53. L'Hirondel J and L'Hirondel J-L 1996 Les Nitrates et l'Homme. Les Editions de l'Institut de l'Environment, Liffre.Google Scholar
  54. Macdonald A J, Powlson D S, Poulton P R and Jenkinson D S 1989 Unused fertilizer nitrogen in arable soils-its contribution to nitrate leaching. J. Sci. Food Agric. 46, 407-419.Google Scholar
  55. Macdonald A J, Poulton P R, Powlson D S and Jenkinson D S 1997 Effects of season, soil type and cropping on recoveries, residues and losses of 15N-labelled fertilizer applied to arable crops in spring. J. Agric. Sci., Camb. 129, 125-154.Google Scholar
  56. Magdoff F, Lanyon L and Liebhardt W 1997 Nutrient cycling, transformations and flows: Implications for a more sustainable agriculture. Adv. Agron. 60, 1-73.Google Scholar
  57. Mansfield T A, Goulding KWT and Sheppard L J 1998 Disturbance of the Nitrogen Cycle. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  58. McKnight G M, Duncan C W, Leifert C and Golden M H 1999 Dietary nitrate inman: Friend or foe? Brit. J. Nutrit. 81, 349-358.Google Scholar
  59. Molina J-A E and Smith P 1998 Modeling carbon and nitrogen processes in soils. Adv. Agron. 62, 253-298.Google Scholar
  60. Mosier A, Kroeze C, Nevison C, Oenema O, Seitzinger S and Van Cleemput O 1998 Closing the global N2O budget: Nitrous oxide emissions through the agricultural nitrogen cycle. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosyst. 52, 225-248.Google Scholar
  61. Packer P J, Caygill C P J, Hill M J and Leach S A 1995 Regional variation in potable water nitrate concentration and its effect on total dietary nitrate intake. Aqua 44, 224-229.Google Scholar
  62. Penning De Vries F W T, Rabbinge R and Groot J J R 1997 Potential and attainable food production and food security in different regions. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. 352, 917-928.Google Scholar
  63. Pierce F J and Nowak P 1999 Aspects of precision agriculture. Adv. Agron. 67, 2-85.Google Scholar
  64. Postgate J R 1998 Nitrogen Fixation. 3rd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  65. Powlson D S, Poulton P R, Addiscott T M and McCann D S 1989 Leaching of nitrate from soils receiving organic or inorganic fertilizer continuously for 135 years. In Nitrogen in Organic Wastes Applied to Soils. Eds. JAA Hansen and K Henriksen. pp 334-345. Academic Press.Google Scholar
  66. Powlson D S, Hart P B S, Poulton P R, Johnston A E and Jenkinson D S 1992 Influence of soil type, crop management and weather on the recovery of 15N-labelled fertilizer applied to winter wheat in spring. J. Agric. Sci., Camb. 118, 83-100.Google Scholar
  67. Quinn P, Anthony S and Lord E 1999 Basin-scale nitrate simulation using a minimum information requirement approach. In Water Quality, Processes and Policy. Eds. ST Trudgill, DE Walling and BW Webb. pp 101-117. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, UK.Google Scholar
  68. Rechcigl J E 1995 Soil Amendments and Environmental Quality. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, USA.Google Scholar
  69. Recous S, Fresneau C, Faurie G and Mary B 1988a The fate of labelled 15N urea and ammonium nitrate applied to winter wheat crop. I-Nitrogen transformations in the soil. Plant Soil 112, 83-100.Google Scholar
  70. Recous S, Machet J-M and Mary B 1988b The fate of labelled 15N urea and ammonium nitrate applied to winter wheat crop. II-Plant uptake and N efficiency. Plant Soil 112, 215-224.Google Scholar
  71. Recous S and Machet J-M 1999 Short term immobilization and crop uptake of fertilizer nitrogen applied to winter wheat: effect of date of application in spring. Plant Soil 206, 137-149.Google Scholar
  72. Rijtema P E and Kroes J G 1991 Some results of nitrogen simulations with the model ANIMO. Fert. Res. 27, 189-198.Google Scholar
  73. Robson A D 1989 Soil Acidity and Plant Growth. Academic Press, Marrickville, Australia. 306 p.Google Scholar
  74. Roling N G and Wagemakers M A E 1999 Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  75. Royal Society 1992 Risk: Analysis, Perception and Management. The Royal Society, London, UK.Google Scholar
  76. Schjorring J K 1997 Plant-atmosphere ammonia exchange, Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Copenhagen, Denmark. 55p+appendicesGoogle Scholar
  77. Schlesinger W H and Hartley A E 1992 A global budget for atmospheric NH3. Biogeochem. 15, 191-211.Google Scholar
  78. Silgram M and Shepherd M A 1999 The effects of cultivation on soil nitrogen mineralization. Adv. Agron. 65, 267-311.Google Scholar
  79. Skiba U, Fowler D and Smith K A 1997 Nitric oxide emissions from agricultural soils in temperate and tropical climates: sources, controls and mitigation options. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosyst. 48, 139-153.Google Scholar
  80. Slanina S 1997 Biosphere-Atmosphere Exchange of Pollutants and Trace Substances: Experimental and Theoretical Studies of Biogenic Emissions and of Pollutant Deposition. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany. 528 p.Google Scholar
  81. Smil V 1991 Population growth and nitrogen: an exploration of a critical existential link. Population and Development Rev.17, 569-601.Google Scholar
  82. Smil V 1999 Detonator of the population explosion. Nature 400, 415.Google Scholar
  83. Smith S J, Schepers J S and Porter L K 1990 Assessing and managing agricultural losses to the environment. Adv. Soil Sci. 14, 1-43.Google Scholar
  84. Stevenson F J and Cole M A 1999 Cycles of soil. Wiley, New York, USA.Google Scholar
  85. Sutton M A, Lee D S, Dollard G J and Fowler D 1998 International conference on atmospheric ammonia: emission, deposition and environmental effects. Atmos. Environ. 32, 269-594.Google Scholar
  86. Thomsen I K and Christensen B T 1996 Availability to subsequent crops and leaching of nitrogen in 15N-labelled sugarbeet tops and oilseed rape residues. J. Agric. Sci., Camb. 126, 191-199.Google Scholar
  87. United Nations Industrial Development Organization and International Fertilizer Development Center 1998 Fertilizer Manual. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.Google Scholar
  88. Vereijken P 1990 Research on integrated arable farming and organic mixed farming in the Netherlands. In Sustainable Agricultural Systems. Eds. CA Edwards, R Lal, P Madden, RH Miller and G House. pp 287-296. Soil and Water Conservation Society, Ankeny, USA.Google Scholar
  89. Vitousek P M, Aber J D, Howarth R W, Likens G E, Matson P A, Schindler D W, Schlesinger W H and Tilman D G 1997 Human alteration of the nitrogen cycle: sources and consequences. Ecol. Appl. 7, 737-750.Google Scholar
  90. Willison T W, Goulding K W T and Powlson D S 1995 Effect of land use change and methane mixing ratio on methane uptake from UK soils. Global Change Biol. 1, 209-212.Google Scholar
  91. Wilson WS, Ball A S and Hinton R 1999 Managing risks of nitrates to humans and the environment. Roy. Soc. Chem. Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  92. Witty J F, Keay P J, Frogatt P J and Dart P J 1979 Algal nitrogen fixation in temperate arable fields. The Broadbalk Experiment. Plant Soil 52, 151-164.Google Scholar
  93. Wollring J, Reusch S and Karlsson C 1998 Variable nitrogen application based on crop sensing. Fertilizer Society. No 423. York, UK.Google Scholar
  94. World Health Organization 1998 Guidelines for drinking-water quality. 2nd Edn. Addendum to Volume 2. Health criteria and other supporting information. Nitrate and nitrite, pp 63-80. WHO, Geneva, Switzerland.Google Scholar
  95. Wu L and McGechan M B 1998 A review of carbon and nitrogen processes in four soil nitrogen dynamics models. J. Agric. Eng. Res. 69, 279-305.Google Scholar
  96. Yamulki S, Harrison RM and Goulding KWT 1996 Ammonia surface exchange above an agricultural field in southeast England. Atmos. Environ. 30, 109-118.Google Scholar
  97. Young A 1998 Land Resources: Now and for the Future. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  98. Young V R, Scrimshaw N S and Pellett P L 1998 Significance of dietary protein source in human nutrition. In Feeding a World Population of More Than Eight Billion People. Eds. JC Waterlow, DG Armstrong, L Fowden and R Riley. pp 205-222. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.Google Scholar
  99. Yudkin J 1985 The Penguin Encyclopedia of Nutrition. Viking Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • D. S. Jenkinson
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.IACR – RothamstedHarpendenUK
  2. 2.Department of Soil ScienceUniversity of ReadingReadingUK

Personalised recommendations