A tradeoff frontier for global nitrogen use and cereal production

Nathaniel D. Mueller, Paul C. West, James S. Gerber, Graham K. Macdonald, Stephen Polasky, Jonathan A. Foley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Nitrogen fertilizer use across the world's croplands enables high-yielding agricultural production, but does so at considerable environmental cost. Imbalances between nitrogen applied and nitrogen used by crops contributes to excess nitrogen in the environment, with negative consequences for water quality, air quality, and climate change. Here we utilize crop input-yield models to investigate how to minimize nitrogen application while achieving crop production targets. We construct a tradeoff frontier that estimates the minimum nitrogen fertilizer needed to produce a range of maize, wheat, and rice production levels. Additionally, we explore potential environmental consequences by calculating excess nitrogen along the frontier using a soil surface nitrogen balance model. We find considerable opportunity to achieve greater production and decrease both nitrogen application and post-harvest excess nitrogen. Our results suggest that current (circa 2000) levels of cereal production could be achieved with ∼50% less nitrogen application and ∼60% less excess nitrogen. If current global nitrogen application were held constant but spatially redistributed, production could increase ∼30%. If current excess nitrogen were held constant, production could increase ∼40%. Efficient spatial patterns of nitrogen use on the frontier involve substantial reductions in many high-use areas and moderate increases in many low-use areas. Such changes may be difficult to achieve in practice due to infrastructure, economic, or political constraints. Increases in agronomic efficiency would expand the frontier to allow greater production and environmental gains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number054002
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2014


  • agriculture
  • crop yield
  • fertilizer
  • nitrogen

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