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Quantification of global and national nitrogen budgets for crop production


Input–output estimates of nitrogen on cropland are essential for improving nitrogen management and better understanding the global nitrogen cycle. Here, we compare 13 nitrogen budget datasets covering 115 countries and regions over 1961–2015. Although most datasets showed similar spatiotemporal patterns, some annual estimates varied widely among them, resulting in large ranges and uncertainty. In 2010, global medians (in TgN yr−1) and associated minimum–maximum ranges were 73 (64–84) for global harvested crop nitrogen; 161 (139–192) for total nitrogen inputs; 86 (68–97) for nitrogen surplus; and 46% (40–53%) for nitrogen use efficiency. Some of the most uncertain nitrogen budget terms by country showed ranges as large as their medians, revealing areas for improvement. A benchmark nitrogen budget dataset, derived from central tendencies of the original datasets, can be used in model comparisons and inform sustainable nitrogen management in food systems.

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Fig. 1: Nitrogen budgets for crop production and resulting nitrogen species released to the environment.
Fig. 2: Global nitrogen budgets for crop production from various data sources.
Fig. 3: The estimates of nitrogen budget terms and land area by countries for 2000.
Fig. 4: Uncertainties in region-specific nitrogen budgets.
Fig. 5: Estimates of crop nitrogen content from different data sources.
Fig. 6: Examples of historical nitrogen records on a national scale.

Data availability

Most data presented in this study are contained within the Supplementary Information. The benchmark datasets are available in the Supplementary Data. Other raw data supporting the findings of this study are available through Dryad ( and from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The code used to perform analyses in this study is generated in MATLAB 2016b and is available upon request.


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This work resulted in part from a workshop supported by NSF Research Coordination Network awards DEB-1049744/1547041 (awarded to E.D.). X.Z. is supported by the National Science Foundation (CNS-1739823, CBET-2047165, and CBET-2025826). K.N. is supported by a project, JPNP18016, commissioned by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). FAOSTAT Statistics are collected from FAO member countries, analysed and disseminated with support from the FAO Regular Budget. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the FAO. L.L. is supported by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO) and European Commission ERDF Ramón y Cajal grant (RYC‐2016‐20269), Programa Propio from UPM, and acknowledges the Comunidad de Madrid (Spain) and structural funds 2014‐2020 (ERDF and ESF), project AGRISOST‐CM S2018/BAA‐4330 and Spanish MINECO AgroScena-UP (PID2019-107972RB-I00). We acknowledge the global Environment Facility and the UN Environment Programme for the ‘Towards INMS Project’ as a key space to improve understanding of the nitrogen cycle, building the bridge between science and policy.

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Authors and Affiliations



X.Z., E.A.D. and L.L. designed the study. T.Z., X.Z. and M.D.L. carried out the analysis for data submitted by F.N.T, N.D.M., C.L., R.T.C., C.D.D., J.G., H.T., K.N., B.L.B., A.P., L.B., A.B., J.C., P.H. and D.L. X.Z., E.A.D. and L.L. wrote the paper with contributions from all authors. All authors reviewed and edited the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Xin Zhang or Eric A. Davidson.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Kentaro Hayashi, David Kanter and Wim de Vries for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–8 and Tables 1–8.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

A benchmark for nitrogen budget estimates based on the median value and the range of nitrogen budget estimates used in this study.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 3

Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 5

Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 6

Statistical source data.

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Zhang, X., Zou, T., Lassaletta, L. et al. Quantification of global and national nitrogen budgets for crop production. Nat Food 2, 529–540 (2021).

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