Review and analysis of strengths and weaknesses of agro-ecosystem models for simulating C and N fluxes

Lorenzo Brilli (Corresponding Author), Luca Bechini, Marco Bindi, Marco Carozzi, Daniele Cavalli, Richard Conant, Cristopher D. Dorich, Luca Doro, Fiona Ehrhardt, Roberta Farina, Roberto Ferrise, Nuala Fitton, Rosa Francaviglia, Peter Grace, Ileana Iocola, Katja Klumpp, Joël Léonard, Raphaël Martin, Raia Silvia Massad, Sylvie RecousGiovanna Seddaiu, Joanna Sharp, Pete Smith, Ward N Smith, Jean-Francois Soussana, Gianni Bellocchi

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Biogeochemical simulation models are important tools for describing and quantifying the contribution of agricultural systems to C sequestration and GHG source/sink status. The abundance of simulation tools developed over recent decades, however, creates a difficulty because predictions from different models show large variability. Discrepancies between the conclusions of different modelling studies are often ascribed to differences in the physical and biogeochemical processes incorporated in equations of C and N cycles and their interactions. Here we review the literature to determine the state-of-the-art in modelling agricultural (crop and grassland) systems. In order to carry out this study, we selected the range of biogeochemical models used by the CN-MIP consortium of FACCE-JPI ( APSIM, CERES-EGC, DayCent, DNDC, DSSAT, EPIC, PaSim, RothC and STICS. In our analysis, these models were assessed for the quality and comprehensiveness of underlying processes related to pedo-climatic conditions and management practices, but also with respect to time and space of application, and for their accuracy in multiple contexts. Overall, it emerged that there is a possible impact of ill-defined pedo-climatic conditions in the unsatisfactory performance of the models (46.2%), followed by limitations in the algorithms simulating the effects of management practices (33.1%). The multiplicity of scales in both time and space is a fundamental feature, which explains the remaining weaknesses (i.e. 20.7%). Innovative aspects have been identified for future development of C and N models. They include the explicit representation of soil microbial biomass to drive soil organic matter turnover, the effect of N shortage on SOM decomposition, the improvements related to the production and consumption of gases and an adequate simulations of gas transport in soil. On these bases, the assessment of trends and gaps in the modelling approaches currently employed to represent biogeochemical cycles in crop and grassland systems appears an essential step for future research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)445-470
Number of pages16
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date25 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2017

Bibliographical note

This work was developed by the CN-MIP project of the Joint Programming Initiative ‘FACCE’ ( under the auspices of the Global Research Alliance for Agricultural Greenhouse Gases – Integrative Research Group ( The project, coordinated by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) (ANR-13-JFAC-0001), received funding by the ‘FACCE’ Multi-partner Call on Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research through its national financing bodies.


  • biogeochemical models
  • C cycle
  • N cycle
  • management
  • pedo-climate


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