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Producing more grain with lower environmental costs



Agriculture faces great challenges to ensure global food security by increasing yields while reducing environmental costs1,2. Here we address this challenge by conducting a total of 153 site-year field experiments covering the main agro-ecological areas for rice, wheat and maize production in China. A set of integrated soil–crop system management practices based on a modern understanding of crop ecophysiology and soil biogeochemistry increases average yields for rice, wheat and maize from 7.2 million grams per hectare (Mg ha−1), 7.2 Mg ha−1 and 10.5 Mg ha−1 to 8.5 Mg ha−1, 8.9 Mg ha−1 and 14.2 Mg ha−1, respectively, without any increase in nitrogen fertilizer. Model simulation and life-cycle assessment3 show that reactive nitrogen losses and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced substantially by integrated soil–crop system management. If farmers in China could achieve average grain yields equivalent to 80% of this treatment by 2030, over the same planting area as in 2012, total production of rice, wheat and maize in China would be more than enough to meet the demand for direct human consumption and a substantially increased demand for animal feed, while decreasing the environmental costs of intensive agriculture.

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Figure 1: Reactive nitrogen losses and GHG emissions for four management treatments, based on empirical models of losses and life-cycle assessment.
Figure 2: Substantially increased yields can be produced with lower inputs of nitrogen fertilizer, and so lower human and environmental costs.
Figure 3: The projected demand of grain production for 2030 in China.

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We thank P. A. Matson, G. P. Robertson, I. Ortiz-Monasterio and G. Maltais-Landry for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript or assistance during the manuscript revision, and we thank C. L. Kou, D. S. Tan, Z. M. Wang, Z. A. Lin, X. Y. Zhang, J. L. Gao and Y. Zhu for joining field experiments. We also acknowledge all those who provided local assistance or technical help to the Integrated Nutrient Management Network in China. This work was financially supported by the Chinese National Basic Research Program (2009CB118600), the Innovative Group Grant from the NSFC (31121062) and the Special Fund for Agro-scientific Research in the Public Interest (201103003).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



X.C. and F.Z. designed the research. Z.C., Z.W., M.Z., W.M., W.Z., X.Y., J.Y., X.D., Q.G., Q.Z., S.G., J.R., S.L., Y.Y., Z.W., J.H., Q.T., Y.S., X.P., J.Z., M.H., Y.Z. and J.X. conducted field experiments. Z.C., M.F., G.W., L.W., N.A., L.W., L.M. and W.Z. collected the data sets and analysed the data. X.C., Z.C. and P.V. wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fusuo Zhang.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 The distribution of experiments for grain from 2009 to 2012 in China.

a, Rice (n = 57); b, wheat (n = 40); c, maize (n = 56). The background green colour represents the planting area for each crop; darker green means a larger density of planting area regionally for that crop. The dots represent sites, and each colour in a dot represents a year of measurements.

Extended Data Figure 2 Linear models of NH3 volatilization based on nitrogen application rate.

Rate of nitrogen fertilizer application was plotted against NH3-N volatilization for (a) rice (n = 265) (Supplementary Information, extended references 1–36 for rice), (b) wheat (n = 34) and (c) maize (n = 29) (Supplementary Information, extended references 37–60 for wheat and maize) growing seasons, respectively. **P = 0.01. Filled and hollow circles represent data from Chinese journals (or theses) and ISI journals, respectively.

Extended Data Figure 3 Exponential models of N2O emissions and nitrogen leaching based on nitrogen surplus.

Nitrogen surplus was plotted against N2O-N emissions for (a) rice (n = 118) (Supplementary information, extended references 7, 36, 61–84 for rice), (b) wheat (n = 40) and (c) maize (n = 48) growing seasons (Supplementary information, extended references 85–99 for wheat and maize), and against nitrogen leaching for (d) rice (n = 52) (Supplementary information, extended references 7, 100–113 for rice), (e) wheat (n = 59) and (f) maize (n = 56) (Supplementary information, extended references 44, 114–121 for wheat and maize). Nitrogen surplus was defined as nitrogen application rate minus above-ground nitrogen uptake. **Regression significant at P < 0.01. Solid and hollow circles represent data from Chinese journals (or theses) and ISI journals, respectively.

Extended Data Figure 4 Exponential model of nitrogen runoff based on nitrogen surplus for rice production.

Nitrogen surplus was defined as nitrogen application rate minus above-ground nitrogen uptake (n = 81) (Supplementary information, extended references 8, 104, 122–134). **P < 0.01. Solid and hollow circles represent data from Chinese journals (or theses) and ISI journals, respectively.

Extended Data Figure 5 Rice yields over time in smallholder and large-scale farms in Heilongjiang province from 1982 to 2011.

Large-scale farms were around 20 ha; smallholder farms were less than 2 ha. Data from refs 39, 40.

Extended Data Table 1 Grain yields, nitrogen application rates, calculated PFPN, nitrogen surplus, the total and the intensity of reactive nitrogen losses and GHG emissions in farmers’ fields for rice (n = 6,592), wheat (n = 6,940) and maize (n = 5,406) in China
Extended Data Table 2 Above-ground biomass, harvest index (HI) and crop nitrogen uptake for rice (n = 57), wheat (n = 40) and maize (n = 56) in field experiments with four management treatments
Extended Data Table 3 Yield and nitrogen rates of farmer average, top farmers and ISSM
Extended Data Table 4 Total production, weighted average of grain yield and nitrogen rate, total land use, nitrogen fertilizer use, reactive nitrogen losses, and GHG emissions in 2005, 2012 and projected in 2030 under three scenarios for all three crops (rice, wheat and maize) in China

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains an extended reference list for establishing the reactive N loss models, Supplementary Table 1, a Supplementary Discussion and additional references. (PDF 684 kb)

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Chen, X., Cui, Z., Fan, M. et al. Producing more grain with lower environmental costs. Nature 514, 486–489 (2014).

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