Plastic mulching reduces nitrogen footprint of food crops in China: A meta-analysis

Linlin Wang, Jeffrey A. Coulter, Lingling Li, Zhuzhu Luo, Yinglong Chen, Xiping Deng, Junhong Xie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Sustainably feeding the growing population amid rising global temperatures and dwindling resources is a grand challenge facing mankind. Plastic mulching (PM) is widely used in China aiming to the increase of crop productivity. However, the impact of PM on reactive nitrogen (Nr) emissions and nitrogen (N) footprint has not been explicitly described. In this study, we collected 4051 observations from 394 published papers for potato (Solanum tuberosum L.), maize (Zea mays L.), and wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), and used meta-analysis to investigate how PM affected crop yield, net economic return, Nr emissions, and N footprints including nitrogen footprint per unit of output energy (NFo) and nitrogen footprint per unit of net economic return (NFe) at regional scale and across a range of precipitation and N fertilization gradients in China. The meta-analysis showed that compared to non-PM practice, PM increased grain yield by 25, 27, and 20% in potato, maize, and wheat, respectively, and enhanced net economic return by 19, 29, and 22%, respectively, with corresponding reduction in NFo of 24, 36, and 18% and NFe of 19, 37, and 19%, respectively. Potato and maize had greater energy output and net economic return than wheat. Plastic mulching was more effective in improving net economic return (or energy output) and reducing N footprints (i.e., NFe and NFo) in the semiarid region (i.e., annual precipitation <600 mm) when N was applied at 100–200 kg N ha−1, especially in potato and maize. Our analysis suggests that the use of PM enhanced grain yield and net economic return while lowering the N footprint without increasing Nr emission. Therefore, PM has great potential to mitigate Nr loss in China when crop species, N fertilization rate, and local environmental factors (i.e., growing region and annual precipitation) are appropriately considered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number141479
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Dec 15 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Gansu Provincial Key Laboratory of Aridland Crop Science, Gansu Agricultural University ( GSCS-2019-9 and GSCS-2019-Z4 ), the start-up funds from Gansu Agricultural University for openly-recruited Ph.D. graduates ( GAU-KYQD-2018-20 ), the National Natural Science Foundation of China ( 31761143004 , 31660373 , and 31960223 ), and the Department of Science and Technology of Gansu Province ( GSPT-2018-56 ).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier B.V.


  • Economic benefit
  • Nitrogen footprint
  • Plastic mulching
  • Reactive nitrogen emissions
  • Zea mays
  • China
  • Soil
  • Nitrogen/analysis
  • Agriculture
  • Crops, Agricultural
  • Plastics
  • Fertilizers

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Journal Article


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