Food and feed trade has greatly impacted global land and nitrogen use efficiencies over 1961–2017

Zhaohai Bai, Wenqi Ma, Hao Zhao, Mengchu Guo, Oene Oenema, Pete Smith, Gerard Velthof, Xia Liu, Chunsheng Hu, Peiguang Wang, Nannan Zhang, Ling Liu, Sujuan Guo, Xiangwen Fan, Wilfried Winiwarter, Lin Ma*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


International trade of agricultural products has complicated and far-reaching impacts on land and nitrogen use efficiencies. We analysed the productivity of cropland and livestock and associated use of feed and fertilizer efficiency for over 240 countries, and estimated these countries’ cumulative contributions to imports and exports of 190 agricultural products for the period 1961–2017. Crop trade has increased global land and partial fertilizer nitrogen productivities in terms of protein production, which equalled savings of 2,270 Mha cropland and 480 Tg synthetic fertilizer nitrogen over the analysed period. However, crop trade decreased global cropland productivity when productivity is expressed on an energy (per calorie) basis. Agricultural trade has generally moved towards optimality, that is, has increased global land and nitrogen use efficiencies during 1961–2017, but remains at a relatively low level. Overall, mixed impacts of trade on resource use indicate the need to rethink trade patterns and improve their optimality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)780-791
Number of pages12
JournalNature Food
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

This work was financially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31572210, 31272247), Program of International S&T Cooperation (2015DFG91990), President’s International Fellowship Initiative (PIFI) of CAS (2016DE008, 2016VBA073 and 2019VCA0017), the Youth Innovation Promotion Association, CAS (2019101) and Distinguished Young Scientists Project of Natural Science Foundation of Hebei (D2017503023). The input of P.S. contributes to the N-Circle China–UK Virtual Joint Centre on Nitrogen, funded by the Newton Fund via UK BBSRC/NERC (grant BB/N013484/1). Z.B. also thanks Francesco N. Tubiello from FAOSTAT for help with interpreting the data and results, FAOSTAT for providing the functional data used in this study, and Y. Cui, J. Liu, S. Xu, Y. Wang, M. Guo, S. Zhao and Y. Cao for helping collect the data at early stage.

Data Availability Statement

All data needed to evaluate the conclusions of this study are available in the paper itself and/or the Supplementary Information file. Source data are provided with this paper.


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