Managing nitrogen for sustainable development

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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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Figure 1: An illustration of the N budget in crop production and resulting N species released to the environment.
Figure 2: An idealized EKC for Nsur and the related curve for NUE.
Figure 3: Examples of historical trends of the relationship between GDP per capita and Nsur.
Figure 4: A comparison of historical trends.
Figure 5: Historical trends of Nyield, NUE and Nsur, for a sample of countries examined in this study.

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  • 02 December 2015

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


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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




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.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Xin Zhang or Eric A. Davidson.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

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. (PDF 11035 kb)

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. (XLSX 206 kb)

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. (CSV 11707 kb)

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. (CSV 9994 kb)

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Zhang, X., Davidson, E., Mauzerall, D. et al. Managing nitrogen for sustainable development. Nature 528, 51–59 (2015).

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