Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 1217–1227 | Cite as

Nitrogen use efficiencies in Chinese agricultural systems and implications for food security and environmental protection

  • Baojing Gu
  • Xiaotang Ju
  • Scott X. Chang
  • Ying Ge
  • Jie ChangEmail author
Original Article


Nitrogen (N) use efficiency (NUE) is an important indicator to evaluate the performance of N use in agricultural systems. Understanding changes in NUE is crucial to improve N management and reduce harmful environmental impacts. Here we analyzed the historical changes in NUE in three agricultural subsystems in China: cropland, confined livestock feedlot and grassland with grazing animals, as well as their impacts on food security and the environments using the mass balance approach. The NUE in croplands increased from 40% in 1980 to 45% in 1984 and then decreased to 36% in 2003, after which it rebound to 39% in 2010, explained by the interaction of socioeconomic development and natural factors. The livestock and grazing/grassland subsystems saw continuous improvement of NUE from 6 to 16 and 1 to 5%, respectively, associated with the increase in average livestock farm size and related technological innovations and livestock specie changes between 1980 and 2010. The low agricultural NUE has resulted in the loss of 18.4–44.8 Tg N year−1 to the atmosphere or hydrosphere, or accumulation in the soil as reactive N in Chinese agriculture systems between 1980 and 2010. Despite the large amount of N used and lost during food production, the overall protein self-sufficiency ratio decreased from over 90% in the 1980s to 79% in 2010. Future agricultural development in China faces multiple challenges on increasing the productivity and reducing the N loss, for which increasing the NUE in all three agricultural subsystems should be a priority.


Cropland Feed import Grassland Livestock Nitrogen pollution Policy 



We thank Dr. Peter M. Vitousek of Stanford University for his substantial contributions in analyzing the results and formulating the framework of this paper. This study was supported by the National Key Research and Development Project of China (2016YFC0207906), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 41201502, 31270377, 31470463 and 41471190), the Special Fund for the Agricultural Profession (201503106) and the “973” program (2014CB953803) of the Ministry of Science and Technology of China. The work contributes to the UK-China Virtual Joint Centre on Nitrogen “N-Circle” funded by the Newton Fund via UK BBSRC/NERC (BB/N013484/1).

Supplementary material

10113_2016_1101_MOESM1_ESM.docx (155 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 155 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Baojing Gu
    • 1
    • 2
  • Xiaotang Ju
    • 3
  • Scott X. Chang
    • 4
  • Ying Ge
    • 5
  • Jie Chang
    • 5
    Email author
  1. 1.Deparment of Land ManagementZhejiang UniversityHangzhouPeople’s Republic of China
  2. 2.Policy Simulation LaboratoryZhejiang UniversityHangzhouPeople’s Republic of China
  3. 3.College of Resources and Environmental SciencesChina Agricultural UniversityBeijingPeople’s Republic of China
  4. 4.Department of Renewable ResourcesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  5. 5.College of Life SciencesZhejiang UniversityHangzhouPeople’s Republic of China

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