Sep 2022, Volume 9 Issue 3

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  • Nitrogen is an essential nutrient that supports life, but excess N in the human-environment system causes multiple adverse effects from the local to the global scale. Sustainable N management in agroecosystems, therefore, has become more and more critical to address the increasing concern over food security, environmental quality and climate change. As a consequence, sustainable N management includes Agriculture, Agro-Food, Agro-Food-Human, Agro-Ecology, Agro-Eco-Society, and [Detail] ...

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    Wim DE VRIES, Xuejun LIU, Lixing YUAN
    Hui LIU, Qian LIU, Xiuhua GAO, Xiangdong FU

    ● The Green Revolution broadened the trade-off between yield and nitrogen-use efficiency.

    ● Root developmental and metabolic adaptations to nitrogen availability.

    ● Mechanisms of nitrogen uptake and assimilation have been extensively studied.

    ● Modulating plant growth-metabolic coordination improves nitrogen-use efficiency in crops.

    The Green Revolution of the 1960s boosted crop yields in part through widespread production of semidwarf plant cultivars and extensive use of mineral fertilizers. The beneficial semidwarfism of cereal Green Revolution cultivars is due to the accumulation of plant growth-repressing DELLA proteins, which increases lodging resistance but requires a high-nitrogen fertilizer to obtain high yield. Given that environmentally degrading fertilizer use underpins current worldwide crop production, future agricultural sustainability needs a sustainable Green Revolution through reducing N fertilizer use while boosting grain yield above what is currently achievable. Despite a great deal of research efforts, only a few genes have been demonstrated to improve N-use efficiency in crops. The molecular mechanisms underlying the coordination between plant growth and N metabolism is still not fully understood, thus preventing significant improvement. Recent advances of how plants sense, capture and respond to varying N supply in model plants have shed light on how to improve sustainable productivity in agriculture. This review focuses on the current understanding of root developmental and metabolic adaptations to N availability, and discuss the potential approaches to improve N-use efficiency in high-yielding cereal crops.

    Jingjing PENG, Olatunde OLADELE, Xiaotong SONG, Xiaotang JU, Zhongjun JIA, Hangwei HU, Xuejun LIU, Shuikuan BEI, Anhui GE, Limei ZHANG, Zhenling CUI

    ● Matching nitrification inhibitors with soil properties and nitrifiers is vital to achieve a higher NUE.

    ● Enhancing BNF, DNRA and microbial N immobilization processes via soil amendments can greatly contribute to less chemical N fertilizer input.

    ● Plant-associated microbiomes are critical for plant nutrient uptake, growth and fitness.

    ● Coevolutionary trophic relationships among soil biota need to be considered for improving crop NUE.

    Soil microbiomes drive the biogeochemical cycling of nitrogen and regulate soil N supply and loss, thus, pivotal nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). Meanwhile, there is an increasing awareness that plant associated microbiomes and soil food web interactions is vital for modulating crop productivity and N uptake. The rapid advances in modern omics-based techniques and biotechnologies make it possible to manipulate soil-plant microbiomes for improving NUE and reducing N environmental impacts. This paper summarizes current progress in research on regulating soil microbial N cycle processes for NUE improvement, plant-microbe interactions benefiting plant N uptake, and the importance of soil microbiomes in promoting soil health and crop productivity. We also proposes a potential holistic (rhizosphere-root-phyllosphere) microbe-based approach to improve NUE and reduce dependence on mineral N fertilizer in agroecosystems, toward nature-based solution for nutrient management in intensive cropping systems.

    Yongjia ZHONG, Lini LIANG, Ruineng XU, Hanyu XU, Lili SUN, Hong LIAO

    ● Intercropping change soil bacterial communities in tea plantations.

    ● Intercropping increasing nitrogen cycling in the soils of tea plantations.

    Intercropping with eco-friendly crops is a well-known strategy for improving agriculture sustainability with benefits throughout the soil community, though the range of crop impacts on soil microbiota and extent of feedbacks to crops remain largely unclear. This study evaluated the impacts of different intercropping systems on soil bacterial community composition, diversity, and potential functions in tea gardens. Intercropping systems were found to be significantly influenced soil microbiota. Within the three tested intercropping systems (tea-soybean, tea-rapeseed and tea-soybean-rapeseed), the tea-soybean-rapeseed intercropping system had the most dramatic influence on soil microbiota, with increases in richness accompanied by shifts in the structure of tea garden soil bacterial networks. Specifically, relative abundance of potentially beneficial bacteria associated with essential mineral nutrient cycling increased significantly in the tea-soybean-rapeseed intercropping system. In addition, soil microbial functions related to nutrient cycling functions were significantly enhanced. This was in accordance with increasing relative abundance of nitrogen cycling bacteria, including Burkholderia spp. and Rhodanobacter spp. Based on these results, it is proposed that intercropping tea plantation with soybean and rapeseed may benefit soil microbiota, and thereby promises to be an important strategy for improving soil health in ecologically sound tea production systems.


    ● A composite N management index is proposed to measure agriculture sustainability.

    ● Nitrogen management has been moving towards sustainability targets globally.

    ● The improvement was achieved mainly by yield increase, while Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) stagnated.

    ● No country achieved both yield and NUE targets and spatial variation is large.

    ● Region-specific yield targets can be used to supplement the standard Sustainable Nitrogen Management Index (SNMI).

    To represent the sustainability of nitrogen management in the Sustainable Development Goals indicator framework, this paper proposes a sustainable nitrogen management index (SNMI). This index combines the performance in N crop yield and N use efficiency (NUE), thereby accounting for the need for both food production and environmental protection. Applying SNMI to countries around the world, the results showed improvement in the overall sustainability of crop N management over the past four decades, but this improvement has been mainly achieved by crop yield increase, while global NUE has improved only slightly. SNMI values vary largely among countries, and this variation has increased since the 1970s, implying different levels of success, even failure, in improving N management for countries around the world. In the standard SNMI assessment, the reference NUE was defined as 1.0 (considered an ideal NUE) and the reference yield was defined as 90 kg·ha−1·yr−1 N (considering a globally averaged yield target for meeting food demand in 2050). A sensitivity test that replaced the reference NUE of 1.0 with more realistic NUE targets of 0.8 or 0.9 showed overall reduction in SNMI values (i.e., improved performance), but little change in the ranking among countries. In another test that replaced the universal reference yield with region-specific attainable yield, SNMI values declined (i.e., improved performance) for most countries in Africa and West Asia, whereas they increased for many countries in Europe and South America. The index can be improved by further investigation of approaches for setting region-specific yield targets and high-quality data on crop yield potentials. Overall, SNMI offers promise for a simple and transparent approach to assess progress of countries toward sustainable N management with a single indicator.

    Xia LIANG, Helen SUTER, Shu Kee LAM, Charlie WALKER, Roya KHALIL, Deli CHEN

    ● There is huge potential for improvement of nitrogen management in Australia.

    ● N management should incorporate environmental, social and economic sustainability.

    ● Agronomic, ecological and socioeconomic approaches and efforts are needed.

    Nitrogen is an essential nutrient that supports life, but excess N in the human-environment system causes multiple adverse effects from the local to the global scale. Sustainable N management in agroecosystems, therefore, has become more and more critical to address the increasing concern over food security, environmental quality and climate change. Australia is facing a serious challenge for sustainable N management due to its emission-intensive lifestyle (high level of animal-source foods and fossil fuels consumption) and its diversity of agricultural production systems, from extensive rainfed grain systems with mining of soil N to intensive crop and animal production systems with excessive use of N. This paper reviews the major challenges and future opportunities for making Australian agrifood systems more sustainable, less polluting and more profitable.

    Fen ZHANG, Xiaopeng GAO, Junjie WANG, Fabo LIU, Xiao MA, Hailin CAO, Xinping CHEN, Xiaozhong WANG

    ● Sustainable nitrogen management strategies for Chinese vegetable production are summarized.

    ● Research on reactive N (Nr) losses in Chinese vegetable systems is limited compared to cereal crop systems.

    ● Knowledge-based optimization of N fertilizer rate strategy maintains soil N supply to meet the dynamic vegetable demand in time, space and quantity.

    ● Innovative products and technology strategy regulates the soil N forms and promotes the vegetable root growth to further control the Nr loss.

    ● Integrated knowledge and products strategy is needed to produce more vegetables with lower Nr losses.

    Inappropriate nitrogen fertilizer management for the intensive Chinese vegetable production has caused low N use efficiency (NUE), high reactive nitrogen (Nr) losses and serious environmental risks with limited yield increase. Innovative N management strategy is an urgent need to achieve sustainable vegetable production. This paper summarizes recent studies on Nr losses and identifies the limitations from Chinese vegetable production systems and proposes three steps for sustainable N management in Chinese vegetable production. The three N management steps include, but are not limited to, (1) knowledge-based optimization of N fertilizer rate strategy, which maintains soil N supply to meet the dynamic vegetable demand in time, space and quantity; (2) innovative products and technology, which regulates the soil N forms and promotes the vegetable root growth to reduce the Nr loss; (3) integrated knowledge and products strategy (IKPS). The knowledge-based optimization of N fertilizer rate strategy and innovative products and technology, can maintain or increase vegetable yield, significantly improve NUE, and mitigate the region-specific and crop-specific Nr losses. More importantly, IKPS, based on combination of in-season root-zone N management strategy, innovative products and technology, and best crop cultivation management, is needed to produce more vegetables with lower Nr losses.

    Xueqiang ZHU, Peng ZHOU, Peng MIAO, Haoying WANG, Xinlu BAI, Zhujun CHEN, Jianbin ZHOU

    ● Excessive application of N fertilizers in orchards and vegetable fields (OVFs) in China is particularly common.

    ● Long-term excessive application of N fertilizers has made OVFs hotspots for N surplus and loss in China.

    ● Nitrate accumulation in the soil profile is the main fate of N fertilizers in OVF systems.

    ● Reducing the N surplus is the most effective way to reduce N loss and increase NUE.

    China is the largest producer and consumer of fruits and vegetables in the world. Although the annual planting areas of orchards and vegetable fields (OVF) account for 20% of total croplands, they consume more than 30% of the mineral nitrogen fertilizers in China and have become hotspots of reactive N emissions. Excess N fertilization has not only reduced the N use efficiency (NUE) and quality of grown fruits and vegetables but has also led to soil acidification, biodiversity loss and climate change. Studies using 15N labeling analysis showed that the recovery rate of N fertilizer in OVFs was only 16.6%, and a high proportion of fertilizer N resided in soils (48.3%) or was lost to the environment (35.1%). Nitrate accumulation in the soil of OVFs is the main fate of N fertilizer in northern China, which threatens groundwater quality, while leaching and denitrification are the important N fates of N fertilizer in southern China. Therefore, taking different measures to reduce N loss and increase NUE based on the main pathways of N loss in the various regions is urgent, including rational N fertilization, substituting mineral N fertilizers with organic fertilizers, fertigation, and adding mineral N fertilizers with urease inhibitors and nitrification inhibitors.

    Bo ZHU, Zhiyuan YAO, Dongni HU, Hamidou BAH

    ● Interflow acts as the dominant pathway for N loss loadings.

    ● The purple soil region is a hot spot of nitrate leaching in China.

    ● Mineral N substitution with organic amendments can be recommended as optimal practices for cropland N management.

    Nitrogen loss from purple soil can lead to large negative impacts to the environment considering the wide distribution of this soil type in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Therefore, nitrogen loss patterns from sloping cropland of purple soil in the Sichuan Basin with the following fertilization regimes were studied in a wheat-maize rotation system: 100% organic fertilizer (OM), using pig manure to replace 30% of mineral N (OMNPK) and crop residue to replace 15% of the mineral N (CRNPK) plus standard mineral fertilization (NPK) and no fertilizer control. The cumulative hydrological N loss could be as high as 45 kg·ha−1 N. The interflow accounted for up to 90% of the total N loss followed by sediment and overland flow losses. The high N loss via interflow found in this study highlighting that sloping cropland of purple soil may be one of the hot spots of N leaching. Compared to the NPK regime, organic substitution regimes (i.e., OM, OMNPK and CRNPK) decreased total hydrological N loss loadings by 30% to 68%. In addition, they can maintain annual crop yields and decrease yield-scaled total hydrological N losses by 18% to 71%. In conclusion, long-term substitution of mineral N with organic amendments can maintain high crop productivity and reduce environmental N loss loadings, and thereby recommended as good N management practices to minimize the risk of agricultural non-point source pollution in the purple soil region of China.

    Jianlin SHEN, Yong LI, Yi WANG, Yanyan LI, Xiao ZHU, Wenqian JIANG, Yuyuan LI, Jinshui WU

    ● Soil nitrogen fluxes and influencing factors were reviewed in the subtropical hilly regions.

    ● Fertilizer application and atmospheric deposition contributed largely to soil nitrogen input.

    ● High gaseous, runoff and leaching losses of soil nitrogen were measured.

    ● Soil nitrogen cycles are well modelled with the Catchment Nutrients Management Model.

    The subtropical hilly region of China is a region with intensive crop and livestock production, which has resulted in serious N pollution in soil, water and air. This review summarizes the major soil N cycling processes and their influencing factors in rice paddies and uplands in the subtropical hilly region of China. The major N cycling processes include the N fertilizer application in croplands, atmospheric N deposition, biological N fixation, crop N uptake, ammonia volatilization, N2O/NO emissions, nitrogen runoff and leaching losses. The catchment nutrients management model for N cycle modeling and its case studies in the subtropical hilly region were also introduced. Finally, N management practices for improving N use efficiency in cropland, as well as catchment scales are summarized.

    Carly J. STEVENS, Sofia BASTO, Michael D. BELL, Tianxiang HAO, Kevin KIRKMAN, Raul OCHOA-HUESO

    ● Grasslands in many regions of the world have been impacted by atmospheric nitrogen deposition.

    ● Nitrogen deposition commonly leads to reductions in species richness.

    ● Increases in biomass production is a common response to increased N deposition.

    ● In some parts of the world there has been limited research into the impacts of nitrogen deposition.

    Grasslands are globally-important ecosystems providing critical ecosystem services. The species composition and characteristics of grasslands vary considerably across the planet with a wide variety of different grasslands found. However, in many regions grasslands have been impacted by atmospheric nitrogen deposition originating from anthropogenic activities with effects on productivity, species composition and diversity widely reported. Impacts vary across grassland habitats but many show declines in species richness and increases in biomass production related to soil eutrophication and acidification. At a continental level there is considerable variation in the research effort that has been put into understanding the impacts of nitrogen deposition. In Europe, North America and parts of Asia, although there are unanswered research questions, there is a good understanding of N deposition impacts in most grassland habitats. This is not the case in other regions with large knowledge gaps in some parts of the world. This paper reviews the impacts of N deposition on grasslands around the world, highlighting recent advances and areas where research is still needed.

    Enzai DU, Nan XIA, Yuying GUO, Yuehan TIAN, Binghe LI, Xuejun LIU, Wim de VRIES

    ● Patterns and effects of N deposition on urban forests are reviewed.

    ● N deposition generally shows an urban hotspot phenomenon.

    ● Urban N deposition shows high ratios of ammonium to nitrate.

    ● N deposition likely has distinct effects on urban and natural forests.

    The global urban area is expanding continuously, resulting in unprecedented emissions and deposition of reactive nitrogen (N) in urban environments. However, large knowledge gaps remain in the ecological effects of N deposition on urban forests that provide key ecosystem services for an increasing majority of city dwellers. The current understanding of the spatial patterns and ecological effects of N deposition in urban forests was synthesized based on a literature review of observational and experimental studies. Nitrogen deposition generally increases closer to cities, resulting in an urban hotspot phenomenon. Chemical components of N deposition also shift across urban-suburban-rural gradients, showing higher ratios of ammonium to nitrate in and around urban areas. The ecological effects of N deposition on urban forest ecosystems are overviewed with a special focus on ecosystem N cycling, soil acidification, nutrient imbalances, soil greenhouse gas emissions, tree growth and forest productivity, and plant and soil microbial diversity. The distinct effects of unprecedented N deposition on urban forests are discussed in comparison with the common effects in natural forests. Despite the existing research efforts, several key research needs are highlighted to fill the knowledge gaps in the ecological effects of N deposition on urban forests.

    Peter M. VITOUSEK, Xinping CHEN, Zhenling CUI, Xuejun LIU, Pamela A. MATSON, Ivan ORTIZ-MONASTERIO, G. Philip ROBERTSON, Fusuo ZHANG

    ● A simple model was used to evaluate how increasing temporal variability in precipitation influences crop yields and nitrogen losses.

    ● Crop yields are reduced and nitrogen losses are increased at current levels of precipitation variability.

    ● Increasing temporal variability in precipitation, as is expected (and observed) to occur with anthropogenic climate change will reduce yields and increase nitrogen losses further.

    A simple ‘toy’ model of productivity and nitrogen and phosphorus cycling was used to evaluate how the increasing temporal variation in precipitation that is predicted (and observed) to occur as a consequence of greenhouse-gas-induced climate change will affect crop yields and losses of reactive N that can cause environmental damage and affect human health. The model predicted that as temporal variability in precipitation increased it progressively reduced yields and increased losses of reactive N by disrupting the synchrony between N supply and plant N uptake. Also, increases in the temporal variation of precipitation increased the frequency of floods and droughts. Predictions of this model indicate that climate-change-driven increases in temporal variation in precipitation in rainfed agricultural ecosystems will make it difficult to sustain cropping systems that are both high-yielding and have small environmental and human-health footprints.

    Chaopu TI, Xiaoyuan YAN, Longlong XIA, Jingwen HUANG

    ● It is necessary to address the N flows and their impacts on environment in China for sustainable N management.

    ● Barriers include better understanding of N cycle mechanisms and improving low cost abatement technologies are needed to overcome.

    ● Integrated measures and policies are crucial for the abatement of adverse impacts of N.

    The impacts of nitrogen on environmental quality, greenhouse gas balances, ecosystem and biodiversity in China are of great concern given the magnitude of demand for food and energy. Comprehensive summaries of historic N flows and their critical threats and sustainable management are urgently needed. This paper initially reviews the historical trends of N flows in China and identifies the critical threats of N loss. Subsequently, it describes some recent success stories of N management, and finally indicates barriers to N pollution control. This review highlights three key points. Firstly, a steady increase of N input in China has led to a series of environmental problems via leaching and runoff, ammonia emissions and denitrification. Secondly, although great efforts to improve N management and N safety in China, further quantifications of N flows and analysis of their underlying mechanisms are needed to improve the understanding of the N cycle and pollution control. Finally, it proposes that the best available technologies combined with regulatory plans, laws, projects and policies should be implemented to overcome current barriers in N control and achieve a balance between the sustainable use of N resources and environmental conservation in China.

    Tom MISSELBROOK, Zhaohai BAI, Zejiang CAI, Weidong CAO, Alison CARSWELL, Nicholas COWAN, Zhenling CUI, David CHADWICK, Bridget EMMETT, Keith GOULDING, Rui JIANG, Davey JONES, Xiaotang JU, Hongbin LIU, Yuelai LU, Lin MA, David POWLSON, Robert M. REES, Ute SKIBA, Pete SMITH, Roger SYLVESTER-BRADLEY, John WILLIAMS, Lianhai WU, Minggang XU, Wen XU, Fusuo ZHANG, Junling ZHANG, Jianbin ZHOU, Xuejun LIU

    ● Virtual joint centers on N agronomy were established between UK and China.

    ● Key themes were improving NUE for fertilizers, utilizing livestock manures, and soil health.

    ● Improved management practices and technologies were identified and assessed.

    ● Fertilizer emissions and improved manure management are key targets for mitigation.

    Two virtual joint centers for nitrogen agronomy were established between the UK and China to facilitate collaborative research aimed at improving nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) in agricultural production systems and reducing losses of reactive N to the environment. Major focus areas were improving fertilizer NUE, use of livestock manures, soil health, and policy development and knowledge exchange. Improvements to fertilizer NUE included attention to application rate in the context of yield potential and economic considerations and the potential of improved practices including enhanced efficiency fertilizers, plastic film mulching and cropping design. Improved utilization of livestock manures requires knowledge of the available nutrient content, appropriate manure processing technologies and integrated nutrient management practices. Soil carbon, acidification and biodiversity were considered as important aspects of soil health. Both centers identified a range of potential actions that could be taken to improve N management, and the research conducted has highlighted the importance of developing a systems-level approach to assessing improvement in the overall efficiency of N management and avoiding unintended secondary effects from individual interventions. Within this context, the management of fertilizer emissions and livestock manure at the farm and regional scales appear to be particularly important targets for mitigation.

    Xuejun LIU, Zhenling CUI, Tianxiang HAO, Lixing YUAN, Ying ZHANG, Baojing GU, Wen XU, Hao YING, Weifeng ZHANG, Tingyu LI, Xiaoyuan YAN, Keith GOULDING, David KANTER, Robert HOWARTH, Carly STEVENS, Jagdish LADHA, Qianqian LI, Lei LIU, Wim DE VRIES, Fusuo ZHANG

    ● Progress on nitrogen management in agriculture is overviewed in China.

    ● 4R principles are key to high N use efficiency and low N losses in soil-crop systems.

    ● A new framework of food-chain-N-management is proposed.

    ● China’s success in N management provides models for other countries.

    Since the 1980s, the widespread use of N fertilizer has not only resulted in a strong increase in agricultural productivity but also caused a number of environmental problems, induced by excess reactive N emissions. A range of approaches to improve N management for increased agricultural production together with reduced environmental impacts has been proposed. The 4R principles (right product, right amount, right time and right place) for N fertilizer application have been essential for improving crop productivity and N use efficiency while reducing N losses. For example, site-specific N management (as part of 4R practice) reduced N fertilizer use by 32% and increased yield by 5% in China. However, it has not been enough to overcome the challenge of producing more food with reduced impact on the environment and health. This paper proposes a new framework of food-chain-nitrogen-management (FCNM). This involves good N management including the recycling of organic manures, optimized crop and animal production and improved human diets, with the aim of maximizing resource use efficiency and minimizing environmental emissions. FCNM could meet future challenges for food demand, resource sustainability and environmental safety, key issues for green agricultural transformation in China and other countries.