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A precision compost strategy aligning composts and application methods with target crops and growth environments can increase global food production

Abstract

Compost represents an important input for sustainable agriculture, but the use of diverse compost types causes uncertain outcomes. Here we performed a global meta-analysis with over 2,000 observations to determine whether a precision compost strategy (PCS) that aligns suitable composts and application methods with target crops and growth environments can advance sustainable food production. Eleven key predictors of compost (carbon-to-nutrient ratios, pH and salt content electric conductivity), management (nitrogen N supply) and biophysical settings (crop type, soil texture, soil organic carbon, pH, temperature and rainfall) determined 80% of the effect on crop yield, soil organic carbon and nitrous oxide emissions. The benefits of a PCS are more pronounced in drier and warmer climates and soils with acidic pH and sandy or clay texture, achieving up to 40% higher crop yield than conventional practices. Using a data-driven approach, we estimate that a global PCS can increase the production of major cereal crops by 96.3 Tg annually, which is 4% of current production. A global PCS has the technological potential to restore 19.5 Pg carbon in cropland topsoil (0–20 cm), equivalent to 26.5% of current topsoil soil organic carbon stocks. Together, this points to a central role of PCS in current and emerging agriculture.

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Fig. 1: Effect of compost use in global and regional contexts and temporal effects.
Fig. 2: BRT analysis identifying the relative importance of contributing factors that drive the effects of compost on yield and SOC.
Fig. 3: Influence of site biophysical conditions on yield and SOC with CO or CM.
Fig. 4: Influence of compost characteristics and their interactions with soil factors on compost effects on yield and SOC.
Fig. 5: Conceptual framework for a PCS.
Fig. 6: Predicted changes for yield and SOC, and total benefits for global cereal production and SOC stocks with different compost use scenarios.

Data availability

The global compost effects observation dataset compiled for this study is available in Supplementary Data 1. The global input gridded datasets of climate, soils and fertilization are publicly available and presented in Supplementary Table 11. Source data are provided with this paper. All other data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Code availability

All codes developed for the BRT and RF analyses and to generate results are available from the corresponding author upon request.

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Acknowledgements

This work was financially supported by National Key Technologies R&D Program of China (grant 2016YFD0201303), Green and High-efficiency Fertilizer Innovation Program, Academy of Green Intelligent Compound Fertilizer, CNSIG Anhui Hongsifang Fertilizer Co., Ltd. and Chaohu Lake Non-point Source Pollution Key Technology Research, Construction of agricultural carbon neutrality account in Quzhou City, Zhejiang Province, Agricultural Technology Experiment Demonstration and Service Support Program in 2021, Graduate International Training Program of China Agricultural University, and the ‘Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre’ under funding received from Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centre Program.

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Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

W.Z. conceived the research and established the methodology. W.Z., S.Z. and S.S proposed the PCS concept. S.Z. collected and analysed the data. W.Z., S.Z. and S.S. designed figures and tables. W.Z., S.Z. and S.S. wrote the manuscript with edits from H.G., T.L., X.C., Y.H., D.C., J.T., Z.D. and F.Z.

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Correspondence to Weifeng Zhang.

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Nature Food thanks Marcel van der Heijden, Rebecca Ryals, Shu Kee Lam and Zengqiang Zhang for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Text 1–4, Figs. 1–23, Tables 1–16, references and meta-analysis reference list.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

The global compost effects observations dataset.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Statistical source data for Fig. 1.

Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data for Fig. 2.

Source Data Fig. 3

Statistical source data for Fig. 3.

Source Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data for Fig. 4.

Source Data Fig. 6

Statistical source data for Fig. 6.

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Zhao, S., Schmidt, S., Gao, H. et al. A precision compost strategy aligning composts and application methods with target crops and growth environments can increase global food production. Nat Food 3, 741–752 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00584-x

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