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China has long been the world’s most populous nation and faced the double challenge of ensuring its food security without causing catastrophic damage to the environment. Since the early 1960s, Chinese agricultural development has been premised on large domestic increases in nitrogen (N) fertilizer production and consumption. However, current utilization of fertilizer is far beyond optimum, with the fate of excess N largely unknown. Here, we report on N flows, losses, and use efficiency in the production and utilization of three major grain crops using data from 2004. We also use a scenario analysis to explore strategies for improving N use efficiency. Our calculations show that N use efficiency in food production and utilization is much lower than previously published estimates. Mean N surpluses of crop fields were 144 kg/ha for wheat, 184 kg/ha for rice, and 120 kg/ha for maize. We estimate that between 50% and 85% of N harvested as grain is lost for utilization by humans and animals. Fertilizer N use efficiency (FNUE) values in crop–animal system for wheat, rice, and maize were 13.4%, 11.3%, and 3.7%, respectively. This means 7.5, 8.9 and 27.1 kg of N fertilizer were required to produce 1 kg of N in food via fertilization for these three grains. Major room exists for improving the efficiency of N flow in Chinese crop systems. Our scenario analyses shows that increases in N use efficiency of fertilizer applied to cropland (RE), decreasing ratios of grain N headed to plant food processing (GUP), and increasing efficiency in animal production (ANU) would result in a marked decrease in N loss from these three crops amounting to one million ton of N, which accounted for 6% of total chemical fertilizer input. Improved N management in Chinese food production has major ramifications for global estimations of N use efficiency and environmental pollution by reactive N, particularly nitrous oxide emissions, a major anthropogenic contributor to global climate change.
Journal: Agricultural Systems - Volume 99, Issue 1, December 2008, Pages 53–63