Plant and Soil

, Volume 252, Issue 1, pp 177–186 | Cite as

How can increased use of biological N2 fixation in agriculture benefit the environment?

  • Erik Steen JensenEmail author
  • Henrik Hauggaard-Nielsen


Asymbiotic, associative or symbiotic biological N2 fixation (BNF), is a free and renewable resource, which should constitute an integral part of sustainable agro-ecosystems. Yet there has been a rapid increase in use of fertiliser N and a parallel decline in the cultivation of leguminous plants and BNF, especially in the developed world. Fertilisers have boosted crop yields, but intensive agricultural systems have increasingly negative effects on the atmospheric and aquatic environments. BNF, either alone or in combination with fertilisers and animal manures, may prove to be a better solution to supply nitrogen to the cropping systems of the future. This review focuses on the potential benefit of BNF on the environment especially on soil acidification, rhizosphere processes and plant CO2 fixation. As fertiliser N has supplanted BNF in agriculture the re-substitution of BNF is considered. What is the consequence of fertiliser N production on energy use? The effect of fertiliser use on the release of the greenhouse gas CO2 is estimated at approximately 1% of the global anthropogenic emission of CO2. The role of BNF on nitrogen cycling, ammonia volatilisation, N2O emission and NO3 leaching suggests that BNF is less likely than fertilisers to cause losses during pre-cropping and cropping. Sometimes however the post-harvest losses may be greater, due to the special qualities of legume residues. Nevertheless, legumes provide other `ecological services' including improved soil structure, erosion protection and greater biological diversity.

biological diversity biological nitrogen fixation fertilizer N gaseous N losses leaching of nitrate nitrogen cycling soil fertility 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Organic Farming Unit, Department of Agricultural SciencesThe Royal Veterinary and Agricultural UniversityTaastrupDenmark

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