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Study Finds Patterns of Crop-Specific Fertilizer-Nitrogen Losses, Opportunities for Sustainable Mitigation

Nitrogen fertilizers play an essential role in ensuring global food security. However, the applied fertilizer-nitrogen, particularly that exceeding crop demand and soil N retention capacity, can potentially escape into the environment and lead to a variety of negative environmental impacts.

Understanding crop-specific fertilizer-nitrogen loss patterns, driving factors, and mitigation potentials is vital for developing specific mitigation strategies. This study highlights the significance of soil  in minimizing N losses from fertilizer-nitrogen and estimates that 35%−60% of these losses could be potentially reduced through optimized management of soil nitrogen and carbon.

The researchers' study was published in Soil Ecology Letters.

Fertilizer-nitrogen losses can be influenced by various factors, such as fertilizer-nitrogen application rates, natural factors, and soil parameters. However, quantitatively determining the effects of these factors and finding solutions to mitigate gross fertilizer-nitrogen losses remains a challenge.

On one hand, the significant spatial heterogeneity of natural factors and  across different regions makes it difficult to draw up mitigation guidelines at regional or broader scales. On the other hand, there is a lack of reports that account for the variation in fertilizer-nitrogen losses in soils cultivated with different crops, which hinders our understanding of crop-specific characteristics of fertilizer-nitrogen losses.

The study conducted a global meta-analysis, i.e., a quantitative synthesis study approach, to facilitate an analysis of spatial patterns. The study specifically focused on 15N isotope tracing publications, as this approach enables the direct measurement of gross fertilizer-nitrogen losses.

Based on the analysis of 940 observations from 79 published research studies, it was found that China had the highest conventional fertilizer-nitrogen application and loss rates, as well as the lowest soil organic carbon contents among the countries/regions examined. Therefore, optimizing fertilizer-nitrogen application rates is crucial for mitigating its losses. Furthermore,  and random forest models confirmed the critical role of soil organic carbon in retaining soil nitrogen.

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