Nitrogen application rates need to be reduced for half of the rice paddy fields in China

Dan Zhang, Hongyuan Wang, Junting Pan, Jiafa Luo, Jian Liu, Baojing Gu, Shen Liu, Limei Zhai, Stuart Lindsey, Yitao Zhang, Qiuliang Lei, Shuxia Wu, Pete Smith*, Hongbin Liu

*Corresponding author for this work

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Increasing nitrogen (N) application to croplands in order to support growing food demand is a major cause of environmental degradation. However, evaluations of suitable N application rates based on environmental benefit have rarely been carried out for paddy-rice at a national scale in China. To address this challenge, we investigated the current status of N management in 1531 counties, covering the primary agro-ecological regions of Chinese rice production in 2008, and conducted 12 field experiments with six N level practices for 3 years (2011–2013). Results showed that the highest yields for rice were 5.8–8.6 Mg ha−1 with N rates of 209.4–289.8 kg N ha−1. Compared with the N rate for the highest yield (YHN), the environmentally optimal N rate (EnON) was lower by 20–39% and the corresponding N loss was reduced by 21–45%, while ensuring 95–99% of the highest crop yield. In China, the N inputs to paddy fields exceeded the YHN and EnON rates by 10% and 45%, respectively. After adjusting the N rate to paddy fields to the EnON rate, the N amount used in China and the corresponding N lost would be reduced by 0.9 and 0.5 Tg N yr−1, respectively, which enable highly efficient production of food with the lowest N loss possible. Thus, we suggest that N use rates for 45% of rice paddy fields in China, for which N application rates exceed the EnON rate, need to be reduced to mitigate environmental damage, and this can be done while still meeting China's food demand.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8-14
Number of pages7
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
Early online date1 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018

Bibliographical note

This research was partially supported by the National Key Research and Development Program (2016YFD0800500), the Special Fund for Agro-scientific Research in the Public Interest (201003014, 201303089), National Natural Science Foundation of China (41773068) and the Newton Fund (Grant Ref: BB/N013484/1).


  • Crop yield
  • Environmental benefit
  • Food security
  • Nitrogen loss
  • Nitrogen rate threshold
  • Non-point source pollution


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