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Optimal nitrogen rate strategy for sustainable rice production in China


Avoiding excessive agricultural nitrogen (N) use without compromising yields has long been a priority for both research and government policy in China1,2. Although numerous rice-related strategies have been proposed3,4,5, few studies have assessed their impacts on national food self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability and fewer still have considered economic risks faced by millions of smallholders. Here we established an optimal N rate strategy based on maximizing either economic (ON) or ecological (EON) performance using new subregion-specific models. Using an extensive on-farm dataset, we then assessed the risk of yield losses among smallholder farmers and the challenges of implementing the optimal N rate strategy. We find that meeting national rice production targets in 2030 is possible while concurrently reducing nationwide N consumption by 10% (6–16%) and 27% (22–32%), mitigating reactive N (Nr) losses by 7% (3–13%) and 24% (19–28%) and increasing N-use efficiency by 30% (3–57%) and 36% (8–64%) for ON and EON, respectively. This study identifies and targets subregions with disproportionate environmental impacts and proposes N rate strategies to limit national Nr pollution below proposed environmental thresholds, without compromising soil N stocks or economic benefits for smallholders. Thereafter, the preferable N strategy is allocated to each region based on the trade-off between economic risk and environmental benefit. To facilitate the adoption of the annually revised subregional N rate strategy, several recommendations were provided, including a monitoring network, fertilization quotas and smallholder subsidies.

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Fig. 1: Schematic illustration of the research workflow.
Fig. 2: Key area-based performance responses to different N application strategies in different subregions of China.
Fig. 3: Performance of different N application strategies for different subregions under planting areas in 2018.
Fig. 4: Distribution of changes in economic indicators when reducing N rates to optimal levels.
Fig. 5: Effects of reducing N rates to optimal levels on indices of ecological sustainability, food security and economic sustainability.

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Data availability

The core data for the study were obtained from the selected studies (see supplementary references), including their supplementary information and data files. All model input datasets and the extensive on-farm data are available at

Code availability

The code to replicate the key findings and figures of the paper are available at Further code is available from the corresponding author on reasonable request. Maps in the study were generated in R version 4.0.1 using map data from the Resource and Environment Science and Data Center (


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This work was supported by the Youth Innovation Promotion Association, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Y201956), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (42061124001) and the National Key R&D Program of China (2017YFD0200104). M.F. was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31972520). X. Zhang was supported by the National Science Foundation (CBET-2047165 and CBET-2025826).

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Authors and Affiliations



X. Zhao, C.M.P. and X.Y. conceptualized the research. S.C. and X. Zhao contributed to the acquisition and analysis of data. M.F. provided the extensive on-farm trials dataset. S.C., C.M.P. and X. Zhao wrote the manuscript. X. Zhang reviewed and edited the original draft. X. Zhang, X.Y. and M.F. commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Xu Zhao or Xiaoyuan Yan.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature thanks Baojing Gu and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Total Nr losses, economic benefit and NEEB response to the N rate.

Single-rice (af) and double-rice (g,h) (early rice/late rice) cropping systems in different subregions based on the peer-reviewed publication database. Intersections of the dashed lines are farmer practice N rate (FN, survey), optimal N rates (ON) or ecologically optimal N rates (EON).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Subregional-area-based Nr losses encompassing N leaching, N2O emissions, NH3 volatilization and N runoff under three N management strategies across China.

Error bars represent the values under the upper and lower bounds of the N rates (mean value ± SD for FN and the profitable N rate range within $2.47 ha−1 for ON and EON).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Regional-based annual Nr losses encompassing N leaching, N2O emissions, NH3 volatilization and N runoff under three N management strategies across China.

Values under the pie charts are the regional-based Nr losses in the four pathways.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Effects of reducing N rates from the FN rate (150% MN) to the ON or EON rate for single-rice and double-rice (early rice/late rice) cropping systems on the probability distribution of the change in NEEB in each site-year on-farm field experiment.

The coloured vertical lines represent the mean values.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Effect of FN (150% MN), ON or EON on the N balance in two straw management scenarios (straw removed and straw returned) for single-rice and double-rice (early rice/late rice) cropping systems.

Values are presented as means ± SD. Different letters indicate significant differences (P < 0.05, Tukey’s honestly significant difference test).

Extended Data Fig. 6 NUE response to FN, ON and EON for single-rice and double-rice (early rice/late rice) cropping systems in different rice subregions of China and the national mean value.

Length of the vertical lines: minimum and maximum values; boxes: upper and lower quartiles; horizontal lines in the box: median; dot in boxes: mean. The dashed red lines denote NUE targets (40%) declared by the ‘Action Plan for Targeting Zero Growth of Synthetic Fertilizer Use of China’18. National values are presented as means ± SD. Different letters indicate significant deviations (P < 0.05, Tukey’s honestly significant difference test).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Conceptual framework for the decision of the optimized strategy for each subregion.

a, Relative change in economic benefit when reducing N rates from the farmer practice N rate (150% MN) to ON or EON. The box plot is used to identify the lower fence for ON (−10.3%) or EON (−13.6%). b, Comparison between environmental benefit change and economic risk within the lower fence when reducing N rates from the farmer practice N rate (150% MN) to EON for single-rice and double-rice (early rice/late rice) cropping systems. When the environmental benefit is higher than economic risk, EON is deemed suitable. ΔEnB, environmental benefit change; ΔEcR, economic risk within the lower fence.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Environmental benefit gain, economic risk and net benefit across China.

a,d,g, Single rice. b,e,h, Early rice. c,f,i, Late rice. Net benefit was estimated by subtracting economic risk in 10.3–13.6% yield risk when reducing N rates (from the farmer practice N rate (150% MN) to the optimized strategy) from environmental benefit.

Extended Data Table 1 Nitrogen fertilizer application strategies for different rice cultivation subregions in China

Supplementary information

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This file contains Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary Figs. 1–12, Supplementary Notes 1–7 and additional references.

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Cai, S., Zhao, X., Pittelkow, C.M. et al. Optimal nitrogen rate strategy for sustainable rice production in China. Nature 615, 73–79 (2023).

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