Nitrogen use in the global food system: Past trends and future trajectories of agronomic performance, pollution, trade, and dietary demand

Luis Lassaletta, Gilles Billen, Josette Garnier, Lex Bouwman, Eduardo Velazquez, Nathaniel D. Mueller, James S. Gerber

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Nitrogen (N) limits crop and grass production, and it is an essential component of dietary proteins. However, N is mobile in the soil-plant system and can be lost to the environment. Estimates of N flows provide a critical tool for understanding and improving the sustainability and equity of the global food system. This letter describes an integrated analysis of changes in N in human diets, N use efficiency (NUE) of cropping and livestock systems, N pollution and N in traded food and feed products for 12 world regions for the period 1960-2050. The largest absolute change in consumption of animal proteins during the period 1960-2009 is seen in China, while the largest share of animal protein per capita is currently observed in North America, Europe and Oceania. Due to the substantial growth of the livestock sector, about three quarters of contemporary global crop production (expressed in protein and including fodder crops and bioenergy byproducts) is allocated to livestock. Trends and levels of NUE and N surpluses in crop production are also diverse, as some regions show soil N depletion (developing regions, e.g. Africa), improving efficiency (industrialized regions, e.g. USA and Europe) and excessive N use (e.g. China, India). Global trade between the 12 regions has increased by a factor of 7.5 for vegetable proteins and by a factor of 10 for animal proteins. The scenarios for 2050 demonstrate that it would be possible to feed the global population in 2050 with moderate animal protein consumption but with much less N pollution, and less international trade than today. In such a scenario, optimal allocation of N inputs among regions to maximize NUE would further decrease pollution, but would require increased levels of N trade comparable to those in a BAU scenario.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number095007
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 14 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd.


  • cropping and livestock systems
  • human diet
  • international trade
  • nitrogen use efficiency
  • past trends and scenarios
  • protein
  • world agro-food system


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