Nutrient surplus in agriculture

Output and value added in Dutch agriculture have increased in recent years, while the surplus of nitrogen and phosphorus has decreased. The nitrogen surplus declined by 29 percent (period 2000-2016), while the phosphorus surplus even fell by 87 percent. Nevertheless, the nitrogen surplus in the Netherlands is still one of the highest among OECD countries.

The nutrient surplus in agriculture is equivalent to inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus minus outputs as contained in animal and plant products as well as in manure removed from agriculture. A surplus means that there is loss of nitrogen and phosphorus into soil as well as into air in the case of nitrogen.

The issue

One of the greatest challenges in agriculture is improving the management of nutrients in the production process. Lower nutrient levels have a positive impact on the quality of soil, groundwater and surface water, which in turn has a positive effect on biodiversity. Furthermore, decreased dependency on nutrients is preferable as phosphorus is becoming increasingly scarce and the production of nitrogen fertilisers from elementary nitrogen by the manufacturing industry is highly energy intensive.


Intensive stock farming is responsible for contributing the largest share to nitrogen and phosphorus surpluses in the Netherlands. After the introduction of the EU Nitrates Directive, nutrient surpluses have become increasingly small over the period 1990-2014. Aside from increasingly limited application of chemical fertilisers (as of 1990), the production of livestock manure has decreased as well (particularly between 1994-2004). Furthermore, less manure is released on agricultural land because increasing amounts are being removed (by processing or through exports). Over the past ten years, less phosphorus is released on agricultural land as a result of reductions in the use of chemical fertilisers and feed concentrates. Mainly due to the increase in cattle population over the years 2014-2016, nutrient surpluses in agriculture have risen again. A package of measures for phosphate reduction which was introduced in 2017 has led to a decrease in cattle stock.

International comparison

Due to the relatively high livestock density and factory farming, the nitrogen surplus in the Netherlands is the highest of all OECD countries on which data are available, despite the significant reductions in surplus as described above.