Perspective

Managing nitrogen for sustainable development

  • Nature volume 528, pages 5159 (03 December 2015)
  • doi:10.1038/nature15743
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Abstract

Improvements in nitrogen use efficiency in crop production are critical for addressing the triple challenges of food security, environmental degradation and climate change. Such improvements are conditional not only on technological innovation, but also on socio-economic factors that are at present poorly understood. Here we examine historical patterns of agricultural nitrogen-use efficiency and find a broad range of national approaches to agricultural development and related pollution. We analyse examples of nitrogen use and propose targets, by geographic region and crop type, to meet the 2050 global food demand projected by the Food and Agriculture Organization while also meeting the Sustainable Development Goals pertaining to agriculture recently adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Furthermore, we discuss socio-economic policies and technological innovations that may help achieve them.

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Change history

  • Corrected online 02 December 2015

    Minor changes were made to refs 20, 23, 25, 38, 61 and 81.

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Acknowledgements

We thank G. M. Grossman, Mark W. Watson, G. Chow, Z. Shi, O. Torres-Reyna and Y. Wang for their advice on economic data analysis. We thank E. Shevliakova, F. Gonzalez Taboada and D. R. Kanter for comments. This study was supported by the programme in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, the United States Department of Agriculture (grant 2011-67003-30373), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Department of Commerce (award NA14OAR4320106). The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Department of Commerce, or the US Department of Agriculture. This is Scientific Contribution number 5080 of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Appalachian Laboratory.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Xin Zhang
    • , Denise L. Mauzerall
    •  & Timothy D. Searchinger
  2. Princeton Environmental Institute, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA.

    • Xin Zhang
  3. Appalachian Laboratory, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Frostburg, Maryland 21532, USA

    • Eric A. Davidson
  4. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Denise L. Mauzerall
  5. Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), 75116, Paris, France

    • Patrice Dumas
  6. Centre International de Recherche sur l’Environnement et le Developpement (CIRED), 94736 Nogent-sur-Marne, France

    • Patrice Dumas
  7. Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, College of Public Health, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA

    • Ye Shen

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Contributions

X.Z., E.A.D., D.L.M. and T.D.S. designed the research. X.Z., T.D.S., and P.D. compiled the N database. X.Z., Y.S. and E.A.D. carried out the statistical analysis. X.Z. and E.A.D. led the writing of the paper with substantial input from D.L.M., T.D.S., P.D. and Y.S.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Xin Zhang or Eric A. Davidson.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file documents data sources and methods used for establishing the nitrogen budget database, and statistical methods used for data analysis. It also contains the Supplementary Figures that display the historical relationship between GDP per capita and Nitrogen surplus for 113 individual countries.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data 1

    This file contains data of nationally aggregated Nitrogen Use Efficiency and Nitrogen surplus for all crop types. The “NUE” tab and “Nsurplus” tab include the data for Nitrogen Use Efficiency and Nitrogen surplus respectively.

CSV files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data 2

    This file contains data of total Nitrogen input rate (with the unit of kg N km-2) to cropland by country and crop type for the period of 1961-2011. There are four columns in the data file, namely “country”, “crop”, “year”, “item”. The data saved under “item” is the total Nitrogen input rate for the “country”, “crop” and “year” specified in previous columns.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Data 3

    This file contains data of harvested Nitrogen (with the unit of kg N km-2) by country and crop type for the period of 1961-2011. The data saved under “item” is the amount of Nitrogen harvested for the “country”, “crop” and “year” specified in previous columns.

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