Fertilisers contain important nutrients, such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), which plants absorb from the soil for their growth. With the harvest of crops for human and livestock consumption and industrial uses, N and P is removed from the soil. Continuing agricultural production without fertilisation could lead to soil degradation and erosion. Fertilisers are therefore essential to sustain agricultural production. Fertilisers are also used to improve crop yields and soils.
The use of manufactured fertilizers as a regular farming practice began in most European countries in the mid to late nineteenth century but the greatest increase in consumption in these countries occurred in the three decades following World War II. The manufacturing of fertilisers greatly enhanced crop yields and agricultural production, and aided the large increase in the world population in the 20th Century.
However when the amount of fertiliser applied exceeds the plants' nutritional requirements, there is a greater risk of nutrient losses from agricultural soils into ground and surface water. The resulting higher concentration of nutrients (eutrophication) can cause serious degradation of ecosystems. With the storage and application to the land of manufactured fertilisers, Nitrogen can volatilise into the air as ammonia contributing to acidification, eutrophication and atmospheric particulate pollution, and nitrous oxides, a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. In addition fertilisers may also have adverse environmental effects resulting from their production processes. More specifically, nitrogenous fertilisers require large amounts of energy to be produced leading potentially to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions. In a different way, phosphorus fertilisers also have an environmental impact, since the raw materials used to produce them are mined, therefore potentially leading to landscape destruction, water contamination, excessive water consumption or air pollution.
This table contains data on the total use of manufactured fertilisers expressed in tonnes of N and tonnes of P received from the countries. Manufactured fertilisers are also often referred to as inorganic fertilisers or mineral fertilisers. For a definition see 3.4.