Nitrogen inputs by irrigation is a missing link in the agricultural nitrogen cycle and related policies in Europe

João Serra*, Cláudia Marques-dos-Santos, Joana Marinheiro, Eduardo Aguilera, Luis Lassaletta, Alberto Sanz-Cobeña, Josette Garnier, Gilles Billen, Wim de Vries, Tommy Dalgaard, Nicholas Hutchings, Maria do Rosário Cameira

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Irrigation, one of the 28 agri-environmental indicators defined in the European Common Agricultural Policy, is often neglected in agricultural nitrogen (N) budgets, while it can be a considerable source of N in irrigated agriculture. The annual N input from irrigation water sources (NIrrig) to cropping systems was quantified for Europe for 2000–2010 at a resolution of 10 × 10 km, accounting for crop-specific gross irrigation requirements (GIR) and surface- and groundwater nitrate concentration. GIR were computed for 20 crops, while spatially explicit nitrate concentration in groundwater was derived using a random forest model. We show that although GIR were relatively stable (46–60 km3 yr-1), the Nirrig in Europe increased over the 10-year period (184 to 259 Gg N yr-1), approximately 68 % of which occurred in the Mediterranean region. The main hotspots appeared in areas with both high irrigation requirements and high groundwater nitrate concentration, reaching up to averaged values of 150 kg N ha-1 yr1. These were mainly located in Mediterranean Europe (Greece, Portugal and Spain) and to a lesser extent in Northern Europe (The Netherlands, Sweden and Germany). By not including NIrrig, environmental and agricultural policies are underestimating the real extent of N pollution hotspots in European irrigated systems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number164249
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2023


  • Agrienvironmental indicator
  • Irrigation water
  • Nitrate pollution
  • Nutrient management
  • Water balance
  • Water management


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