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A technology-forcing approach to reduce nitrogen pollution

An Author Correction to this article was published on 29 October 2018

This article has been updated


Nitrogen pollution has exceeded safe levels outlined in the planetary boundaries literature. As agricultural production continues to intensify, pollution abatement will require acute increases in nitrogen-use efficiency. Policies that rely on the voluntary adoption of farm-level management practices have rarely led to significant reductions in nitrogen pollution and are unlikely to achieve the required efficiency improvements. Enhanced-efficiency fertilizers offer a promising opportunity, but have modest adoption rates and receive limited research support. Here we propose a policy to increase farmer adoption modelled on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards used to increase the fuel efficiency of vehicles in the United States. This programme would require the fertilizer industry to increase the proportion of enhanced-efficiency fertilizers in traditional fertilizer over time, providing incentives for companies to improve both their products and their understanding of where their products are most effective. Using the US corn sector as a case study, we estimate that such a policy could generate net economic benefits of US$5–8 billion by 2030.

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Fig. 1: Agriculture in the United States.
Fig. 2: Data from eight meta-analyses.
Fig. 3
Fig. 4: Economic impacts of policy scenarios relative to the business-as-usual scenario.

Data and code availability

All the data and code used to conduct the illustrative case study for the US corn sector are available here:

Change history

  • 29 October 2018

    In the version of this Perspective originally published, in the last paragraph of the section ‘The US corn sector’, there was an incorrect mention of Fig. 3; it should have referred to Fig. 2. This has now been corrected. The Supplementary Information has also been updated to provide absolute numbers for avoided N pollution as calculated in the main text.


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The authors thank A. R. Bell, Adrian Leip and Paul Scott for their valuable comments and suggestions.

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D.R.K. and T.D.S. jointly developed the idea and analysis. D.R.K. led the writing.

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Correspondence to David R. Kanter or Timothy D. Searchinger.

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Supplementary Sections 1–3, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary References 1–24

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Kanter, D.R., Searchinger, T.D. A technology-forcing approach to reduce nitrogen pollution. Nat Sustain 1, 544–552 (2018).

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