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This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 38 No. 6, p. 2295-2314
    OPEN ACCESS
     
    Received: Dec 19, 2008
    Published: Nov, 2009


    * Corresponding author(s): lesssoiln@gmail.com
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doi:10.2134/jeq2008.0527

Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers Deplete Soil Nitrogen: A Global Dilemma for Sustainable Cereal Production

  1. R. L. Mulvaney *,
  2. S. A. Khan and
  3. T. R. Ellsworth
  1. Dep. of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, Turner Hall, 1102 S. Goodwin Ave., Univ. of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801. This study was performed with partial funding under Projects ILLU-875-375 and ILLU-875-397, Illinois Agric. Exp. Stn., and with additional support generated through the 15N Analysis Service

Abstract

Cereal production that now sustains a world population of more than 6.5 billion has tripled during the past 40 yr, concurrent with an increase from 12 to 104 Tg yr−1 of synthetic N applied largely in ammoniacal fertilizers. These fertilizers have been managed as a cost-effective form of insurance against low yields, without regard to the inherent effect of mineral N in promoting microbial C utilization. Such an effect is consistent with a net loss of soil organic C recently observed for the Morrow Plots, America's oldest experiment field, after 40 to 50 yr of synthetic N fertilization that substantially exceeded grain N removal. A similar decline in total soil N is reported herein for the same site and would be expected from the predominantly organic occurrence of soil N. This decline is in agreement with numerous long-term baseline data sets from chemical-based cropping systems involving a wide variety of soils, geographic regions, and tillage practices. The loss of organic N decreases soil productivity and the agronomic efficiency (kg grain kg−1 N) of fertilizer N and has been implicated in widespread reports of yield stagnation or even decline for grain production in Asia. A major global evaluation of current cereal production systems should be undertaken, with a view toward using scientific and technological advances to increase input efficiencies. As one aspect of this strategy, the input of ammoniacal N should be more accurately matched to crop N requirement. Long-term sustainability may require agricultural diversification involving a gradual transition from intensive synthetic N inputs to legume-based crop rotations.

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Copyright © 2009. American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science SocietyAmerican Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America