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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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

Author notes

    • Xinping Chen
    •  & Zhenling Cui

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. College of Resources & Environmental Sciences, China Agricultural University, Beijing 100193, China

    • Xinping Chen
    • , Zhenling Cui
    • , Mingsheng Fan
    • , Guiliang Wang
    • , Liang Wu
    • , Ning An
    • , Liangquan Wu
    • , Lin Ma
    • , Weifeng Zhang
    •  & Fusuo Zhang
  2. Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Peter Vitousek
  3. Institute of Crop Science, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing 100081, China

    • Ming Zhao
    •  & Weijian Zhang
  4. College of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Agricultural University of Hebei, Baoding 071001, China

    • Wenqi Ma
  5. College of Agronomy, Shandong Agricultural University, Tai’an 271000, China

    • Zhenlin Wang
    • , Jiwang Zhang
    •  & Mingrong He
  6. Institute of Soil Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Nanjing 210008, China

    • Xiaoyuan Yan
  7. Key Laboratory of Crop Genetics and Physiology of Jiangsu Province, Yangzhou University, Yangzhou 225009, China

    • Jianchang Yang
  8. State Key Laboratory of Soil Erosion and Dryland Farming on the Loess Plateau, Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, Yangling 712100, China

    • Xiping Deng
    •  & Shiqing Li
  9. College of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Jilin Agricultural University, Changchun 130118, China

    • Qiang Gao
  10. Institute of Agricultural Environment and Resource, Shanxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Taiyuan 030031, China

    • Qiang Zhang
  11. College of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Nanjing Agricultural University, Nanjing 210095, China

    • Shiwei Guo
  12. Research Center of Agricultural Environment & Resources, Jilin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Changchun 130033, China

    • Jun Ren
  13. College of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Henan Agricultural University, Zhengzhou 450000, China

    • Youliang Ye
    •  & Yunji Zhu
  14. Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, Yangling 712100, China

    • Zhaohui Wang
    •  & Jiquan Xue
  15. College of Plant Science & Technology, Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan 430070, China

    • Jianliang Huang
  16. Crop Physiology, Ecology & Production Center, Hunan Agricultural University, Changsha 410128, China

    • Qiyuan Tang
  17. Soil & Fertilizer Research Institute, Anhui Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hefei 230031, China

    • Yixiang Sun
  18. College of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Northeast Agricultural University, Harbin 150030, China

    • Xianlong Peng


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fusuo Zhang.

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    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.

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