Reducing human nitrogen use for food production

Junguo Liu, Kun Ma, Philippe Ciais, Stephen Polasky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Reactive nitrogen (N) is created in order to sustain food production, but only a small fraction of this N ends up being consumed as food, the rest being lost to the environment. We calculated that the total N input (TN) of global food production was 171 Tg N yr- in 2000. The production of animal products accounted for over 50% of the TN, against 17% for global calories production. Under current TN per unit of food production and assuming no change in agricultural practices and waste-to-food ratios, we estimate that an additional TN of 100 Tg N yr- will be needed by 2030 for a baseline scenario that would meet hunger alleviation targets for over 9 billion people. Increased animal production will have the largest impact on increasing TN, which calls for new food production systems with better N-recycling, such as cooperation between crop and livestock producing farms. Increased N-use efficiency, healthier diet and decreased food waste could mitigate this increase and even reduce TN in 2030 by 8% relative to the 2000 level. Achieving a worldwide reduction of TN is a major challenge that requires sustained actions to improve nitrogen management practices and reduce nitrogen losses into the environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number30104
JournalScientific reports
StatePublished - Jul 22 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by the Beijing Natural Science Foundation Grant (8151002), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41571022, 91425303, 91325302), the National Science and Technology Major Project (2015ZX07203-005) and the 1st Youth Excellent Talents Program of the Organization Department of the Central Committee. We thank Dr. Ying Zhang from Beijing Forestry University for her comments on an early version of the manuscript.


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