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Sustainable intensification of agricultural drainage


Artificial drainage is among the most widespread land improvements for agriculture. Drainage benefits crop production, but also promotes nutrient losses to water resources. Here, we outline how a systems perspective for sustainable intensification of drainage can mitigate nutrient losses, increase fertilizer nitrogen-use efficiency and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. There is an immediate opportunity to realize these benefits because agricultural intensification and climate change are increasing the extent and intensity of drainage systems. If a systems-based approach to drainage can consistently increase nitrogen-use efficiency, while maintaining or increasing crop production, farmers and the environment will benefit.

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Fig. 1: Changes in crop and soil processes with drainage.
Fig. 2: Probability density functions of key crop system processes.
Fig. 3: Relative differences in ecosystem properties and processes between drained and undrained continuous maize cropping systems in southeast Iowa, USA.


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This work was supported by the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Grant no. 20196701929404, the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, the Iowa State University (ISU) Plant Sciences Institute Faculty Scholars program, and a professional development assignment to M.J.C. that was granted by ISU and hosted by ETH-Zürich.

Author information




M.J.C. led the concept development and writing; all authors contributed to the concept development, data interpretation and writing. S.V.A. conducted the modelling. H.J.P. led data analyses and figure development; M.J.C. contributed to data analyses and figure development.

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Correspondence to Michael J. Castellano.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–6, Tables 1–3 and refs. 1–37.

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Castellano, M.J., Archontoulis, S.V., Helmers, M.J. et al. Sustainable intensification of agricultural drainage. Nat Sustain 2, 914–921 (2019).

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