Nitrogen, sustainable agriculture and food security. A review
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The impact of modern agriculture on natural resources has become a major global concern. Population growth and expanding demand for agricultural products constantly increase the pressure on land and water resources. A major point of concern for many intensively managed agricultural systems with high external inputs is the low resource-use efficiency, especially for nitrogen. A high input combined with a low efficiency ultimately results in environmental problems such as soil degradation, eutrophication, pollution of groundwater, and emission of ammonia and greenhouse gases. Evidently, there is a need for a transition of current agricultural systems into highly resource-use efficient systems that are profitable, but at the same time ecologically safe and socially acceptable. Here, opportunities to improve nitrogenuse efficiency in cropping and farming systems are analyzed and discussed. In the past and present, increased productivity of the major plant production systems has been derived from genetic improvement, and from greater use of external inputs such as energy, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation water. Aiming at improving resource-use efficiencies, in high-input systems the focus should be on more yield with less fertilizer N. In low-input systems additional use of N fertilizer may be required to increase yield level and yield stability. Developing production systems that meet the goals of sustainable agriculture requires research on different scales, from single crops to diverse cropping and farming systems. It is concluded that N supply should match N demand in time and space, not only for single crops but for a crop rotation as an integrated system, in order to achieve a higher agronomic N-use efficiency. A combination of quantitative systems research, development of best practices and legislation will be needed to develop more environmentally-friendly agricultural systems. The growing complexity of managing N in sustainable agricultural systems calls for problem-oriented, interdisciplinary research.
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